Bullied over masks: Concerns arise as parents make different choices for kids

Published: August 10, 2021 5:54 PM EDT
Updated: August 10, 2021 6:20 PM EDT

Parents are making choices about whether to send their kids to school with a mask or not as COVID-19 cases rise, and it could lead to another challenge: bullying.

More than 10,000 Lee County parents – roughly 12% of the district’s student population – opted out of masking up their kids as school started Tuesday.

Every school year, we worry about our kids being bullied, teased, taunted, or excluded. That isn’t new, but add masks to the mix, and it could lead to exactly what parents fear.

In the pickup line outside Gateway High School, Heather Mendez was waiting for her daughter, who wore a mask to school.

“It’s her own choice, but she wants to do it for our safety,” she said. “I’m doing chemo. Just got done doing chemo. So for my health, and her dad just got done doing quadruple bypass.”

Her daughter is a freshman, so Mendez has had a lot of first days of school, but Tuesday was the first day she was felt like this.

“It’s one of my concerns, of her being bullied because she’s wearing a mask.”

Other students don’t wear one because they have special needs or can’t focus. There are a lot of reasons for every family’s choice.

“I don’t want a child to be bullied because they’re wearing a mask, and I don’t want a child to be bullied because they’re not wearing a mask,” said Interim Superintendent Ken Savage, who has kids in the district himself.

He said he had school principals meet ahead of the first day to prep them on how to look for and address mask-related bullying, teasing, or taunting.

“Because we know it’s a controversial issue,” he said.

Alise Bartley, who runs the counseling center at Florida Gulf Coast University, said there are very few issues as polarizing as the simple act of wearing a mask. She said the best way to keep our kids feeling positive is simply to be positive.

“If we ask our kids, so how bad was it today not having a mask on or having a mask on, whatever you’re choosing to do, instead, let’s focus in on so what was the most fun thing you learned today? Or tell me about someone that you met that you hadn’t known before?”

After all, let’s not forget – this is supposed to be an exciting time, the return to school.

The good news is the principal and a teacher at Gateway High said the first day was overwhelmingly positive. Masks were not the focus, learning was – as it should be in school.