Facebook, Twitter, newspapers and TV newscasts can flag, regulate or keep outright misinformation or variously concocted pseudo-scientific potions from seeing light of day.
The Flagler County School Board cannot.
At its afternoon workshop on Tuesday and again at its meeting Tuesday evening, the board’s public comment period was dominated by several members of the public intent who, while apparently sincere, disseminated inaccurate, false and discredited information about mask-wearing in the latest attempt to sway the board into lifting mask requirements in schools.
Sometimes in the same breath, members of the public spoke of deep disagreements with the district’s procedures regarding transgender rights, again claiming without facts–and against existing evidence–that granting those rights is causing a rash of problems in schools, among them a threat to girls’ safety in bathrooms if purportedly transgender boys are allowed in.
It is an odd coupling of issues that nevertheless points to an ideologically common thread: anti-masking and anti-transgender rights are a core battle cry of the same voices that, also against all evidence, are questioning the validity of the November election. “You caught me sleeping, I was licking my wounds after the last election, and you caught me asleep,” Alison Wildemuth, one of the commenters attacking transgender rights, told the board.
“You’re seeing a whole lot more of us out there because the word got around that the parents and the rest of the community didn’t really care, and so we all showed up, and more to come,” Chanel Channing told the board.
Previously and on several occasions, inaccurate statements about masks, similarly based on viral but discredited and social media postings that the likes of Facebook have banned, were heralded by Janet McDonald, the school board member. Both a majority of the school board and Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt last month appeared to have put the debate to rest, reasserting the importance of masking and social distancing rules and saying those will not change this year.
On Tuesday, it appeared that the torch was passed to a handful of residents, among them members of the so-called Flagler Liberty Coalition, the anti-masking group that organized bus trips to Washington D.C. for the January 6 pro-Trump rally protesting the legitimacy of the November presidential election. The rally degraded into an armed insurrection and the storming of Congress.
As vaccination progresses and restrictions diminish, the masking matter may recede of its own, assuming a third wave of the virus doesn’t overtake the region, as it is doing in Europe. But the emergence of those anti-masking voices, while restricted to a very small but shrill handful, points to the sort of ideological talking points the board may have to contend with over the next weeks or months, which would be a distraction from the more pragmatic and busy agenda set out by Mittelstadt and the board.
The commenters in every case followed McDonald’s template, citing supposedly reputable sources, physicians, their own research, or even in one case the New England Journal of Medicine, to give their statements credibility. In most cases that credibility crumbled on closer inspection. Most of the statements or sources cited, at least in the context presented by the commenters, have themselves already been discredited by national fact-checking organizations and the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community, including Flagler County’s own health department and its medical director.
One of the more compelling comments came from John, a student at the district’s i3 Academy at Flagler Palm Coast High School. “I’ve always been against mask but I’ve never had real good evidence to back it up,” he said. So he conducted his own tests–he was once a diver–and saw his oxygen levels in the course of a school day fall from a start of 98 percent to 96 percent after an hour, then 95, then 93. He said he kept his mask on throughout the testing and ended the school day at 94. (It was not a controlled experiment, of course: John submitted his findings, but those do not indicate the method he used, the experiment was not independently supervised or reviewed, and it relied on a sample of one, generally not a standard any scientific experiment would find reliable or a basis for public policy. But as a student in the district, “well dressed,” in McDonald’s words, and poised throughout, John did not lack for admiration from the board.)
He reported worse results (88 percent) when he wore an N-95 mask. He said he’d lose a lot of focus while taking tests if he were to wear a mask (though surgeons and other medical practitioners wear masks for hours at a time, especially in surgeries, where loss of concentration is not exactly an issue). He told the board that students should have a choice about wearing a mask. Their parents, he said, “had the choice to bring them in the school and understood the risk coming here, and I believe it’s the parents’ and students’ choice to take on that risk of wearing or not wearing a mask.”
The statement fundamentally misunderstands the purpose of masks: as with medical practitioners who wear them so as not to infect patients, the protection is not primarily for the wearer, but for those around the wearer. In schools, the protection is primarily for faculty and staff, who are older and far more susceptible to severe illness than younger students–and who are ensuring that students are getting their education, at significant risk to themselves and their own families.
Mark Philips, a member of the coalition, said he pulled his child from the school system over the policy. He played what he called a “video” of a doctor speaking on masks, calling them ineffective and citing a New England Journal of Medicine article describing masks as a “talisman.” Philips then went on to name the doctor, Simone Gold, and enumerate her long list of credentials.
What Philips did not say is that Gold is the founder of America’s Frontline Doctors, the group of anti-mask covid-deniers who produced a video that was swiftly banned from social media platforms as making outright false claims. (One of its doctors, Stella Immanuel, claims she’s cured hundreds of covid patients but also believes DNA from extra-terrestrials is used in medical treatment, and attributes some medical conditions to witches and demons). Philips also did not mention that Gold was among those who stormed Congress during the insurrection, was arrested and subsequently indicted.
The New England Journal of Medicine did carry an opinion column a year ago–early in the pandemic–at a time when masks were in short supply, in which masks are described as a talisman. The authors did not see masks as panacea, but nor did they discredit masks.
The full quote, in context, is as follows: “It is also clear that masks serve symbolic roles. Masks are not only tools, they are also talismans that may help increase health care workers’ perceived sense of safety, well-being, and trust in their hospitals. Although such reactions may not be strictly logical, we are all subject to fear and anxiety, especially during times of crisis. One might argue that fear and anxiety are better countered with data and education than with a marginally beneficial mask, particularly in light of the worldwide mask shortage, but it is difficult to get clinicians to hear this message in the heat of the current crisis. Expanded masking protocols’ greatest contribution may be to reduce the transmission of anxiety, over and above whatever role they may play in reducing transmission of Covid-19.”
A USA Today fact-check reported that “The authors of a medical journal article that questioned the use of masks outside health care settings say they support widespread mask wearing when people are in close quarters and that their words have been taken out of context.”
Peer-reviewed evidence since has put questions of masks’ efficacy to rest, with innumerable studies showing that masks do, in fact, limit the spread of the virus, especially to others–less so to the wearer, when others around the wearer are not masked. Masks have been credited for lowering the covid death toll by hundreds of thousands of lives.
A dozen or so people spoke either on masks or transgenders between the two meetings, most of the rest hewing to by-now conventional anti-mask talking points. Monica Johnson wanted to talk to the board about “the proper use of masks,” saying: “You are not supposed to touch it, if you touch it, you have to wash your hands beforehand, and then you can take the mask off, or put the mask on, and then you have to wash your hands again, otherwise you don’t touch it at all, you don’t fidget with it.” Johnson was restating the Centers for Disease Guidance about masks in its strictest form, but on most of the CDC’s guides, not touching the mask is relegated to an afterthought, the focus being on wearing masks rather than not “fidgeting” with it. She also misunderstood the purpose of masks, describing them as “something that might or might not help” children while neglecting masks’ primary purpose: protecting adults around children.
Jane Stevens spoke of “mask mouth” (and somewhat irresponsibly compared it to “meth mouth,” when she wasn’t blaming poor mask qualities on China), the emerging phenomenon dentists are noting from mask wearing, and associating with a tendency to drink less and get dehydrated, causing more dental issues. But as one academician in dental hygiene wrote last year, combating the problem “as a side effect of mask usage can be as simple as reminding our patients to drink enough water throughout the day. Additionally, chewing gum with xylitol can help stimulate salivary flow and prevent caries.”
Casey Goth started her statement by saying that she wanted “to give you some facts about the detriment that masks can cause children,” then went on to quote Dr. Margareta Griesz-Brisson, who, according to Goth, claimed that “face masks are dangerous for every single brain because of oxygen deprivation, but for children and adolescents, masks are an absolute no-no.” Goth was relying on a viral Facebook post transcribing a video message by Griesz-Brisson–which was removed by YouTube for being blatantly untruthful and violating its terms of service.
Many of those who spoke at the evening meeting sat in the audience, maskless, in defiance of the board’s masking rules. The board has not enforced its rule the way the county commission and cities have, during their public meetings.
The board members thanked the commenters, some of the board members, speaking of the importance of hearing “both sides of a story,” thus themselves falsely giving credence to an equivalence between scientific fact and ideological fiction–or evidence-based information on which the board bases its own policies and false information that is demonstrably dangerous to people’s lives, if applied. The district has not been spared its own covid-related losses. But much of the rest of the meeting was more grounded in demonstrable evidence.