Three Lemon Bay High School seniors are requesting a mask mandate in Charlotte County Public Schools after a surge in COVID-19 cases this school year.
“It was around 542 cases total for last year. Right now I believe as of today, we are over 1400 for the past month of school. So we’ve almost tripled all off last year in the first month of school,” said Kiley Rydberg, a student at Lemon Bay High School. “One of our teachers got COVID and she was out for 2 weeks, had really bad pneumonia. She ended up retiring because she said I can’t do this anymore. She’s getting sick. Her job is not to risk her life to teach kids. It’s just to teach kids and she was such an amazing teacher and we just felt we needed to step up and do something about it.”
Kiley, along with her twin sister Kara Rydberg, spoke at the Charlotte County School Board meeting in early September advocating for masks in schools despite the governor’s order to ban mask mandates without a parental opt-out. They say they immediately faced resistance from the public.
“This woman who was standing in the back and as she’s walking out, she yells Liberal Sheep to students, to teenagers and we were like wow,” says Kara Rydberg.
At school, they say some students face teasing and bullying if they choose to wear a mask with some classmates calling them “face diapers” and “muzzles”.
Senior Jaylynn Santacross said, “I feel there are so many kids that want to wear a mask but they feel peer pressured not to.”
“It shouldn’t be arguments about ‘oh well it’s my right to do this, this and this’. It should be about loving your neighbor and that’s what wearing a mask is all about,” Kiley explained. “This shouldn’t be opinions. This shouldn’t be fights on whether you are on this side of the aisle or that side of the aisle. This is simply to help kids. That’s all we are asking. We wish everyone could be responsible but at this point, I feel like the only choice we have is to mandate masks at this point.”
Kiley and Kara along with their friend Jaylynn Santacross met up with WINK News Trust and Verify Reporter Lisa Hutson for help. Together, they made a call to Mike Riley, Spokesman for the Charlotte County Public School’s to ask more questions.
“One of the things we were wondering is, hypothetically, do you see another situation where we might have to shut down again?” asked Kiley.
“That’s something that would probably be at the wish of the health department,” answered Riley explaining the school board made the call to keep masks optional before the school year and now the Governor’s order to ban mandates ties their hands.
“If we were to go against the Governor’s order, there would be a punishment to the district like they’ve been talking about withdrawing the superintendent’s salary and the school board members’ salary and if they can’t do that, they are going to take money away from the school district,” said Riley.
“We are looking at 500 COVID cases last year over the whole year and now we are looking at 1500 total and we are only a month into school. So for me personally, that’s proving that masks worked last year,” said Kiley.
“Well there is another factor with that too,” answered Riley. “There was social distancing, there was heavy-duty sanitation. There were so many things that were done besides just the masks so the masks played a part in it but if those other things hadn’t happened, we don’t know.”
“So how come if we have a more contagious variant how come aren’t we doing those things now?” asked Kiley.
“Well some of them you are but one part of it is we can’t hire people. We are short bus drivers, we are short teachers, we are short custodial staff because people don’t want to come into a work environment like that obviously,” said Riley.
While their conversation didn’t change the mask policy, Riley encouraged the Lemon Bay High School seniors to keep advocating their position at the state level.
“As time goes on, this could change. This could change tomorrow, this could change before this goes on air, depending on what comes out of Tallahasse,” said Riley. “But hey, I have all the respect in the world for you ladies for coming out and presenting your issue and doing it in a civil way. I would like to have you come and school some of our parents about how to act in public. As strongly as you feel about wearing the mask, there are those who feel the exact opposite and are as passionate as you are only that’s why I thank you for being so civil. Thank you.”
“Thank you Mr. Mike. I just want to make it abundantly clear we are so grateful for you to talk to us today and we respect you. That is so kind of you – none of our frustration is meant to be taken out against you,” Kiley said..
After the conversation, the seniors told us what they thought about the answers and what they plan to do next.
“I think it went better than I thought it would go. He definitely gave us a lot of different perspectives,” Jaylynn added.
And Kara said, “I appreciate him talking to us but it just feels like no one is listening to us and until there is change, I don’t think I will feel that way.”
“I think we most certainly be talking to our state representatives. Yeah we are definitely not done fighting. We are going to receive a lot of hate but I personally don’t care It’s worth it. I will take the hate if I can make sure everybody is safe,” Santacross said.
Kara and Kiley’s father told us he is personally against the mandate but supports his daughters pushing to make a difference for the health and safety of their classmates and teachers.
The students started a petition online to change the policy.
You can see the latest COVID 19 case data in Charlotte County Schools using the COVID 19 Dashboard listed on the district’s website.
WINK News Trust and Verify will continue to follow the story.
If you have a question that you’d like WINK to help answer – give us a call on our hotline (239) 344-5055 or email [email protected]