SARASOTA COUNTY (WFLA) – For students across Sarasota County, face masks have become a part of every day life due to a district-wide policy.
There are few exceptions to the rules, but one of them is in sports. Student athletes are able to play their respective sports without a face mask. Parents of these athletes were required to sign a hold harmless agreement due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Parents of performing arts students at Woodland Middle School in North Port signed that same waiver and say they were under the impression their children would be rehearsing and performing without masks on similar to indoor sports like volleyball, basketball and wrestling.
Less than two weeks ago, following a successful opening night performance of The Little Mermaid, everything changed.
“I got a call less than an hour before the show and my daughter was sobbing and crying and saying that the district had sent a message that the students would not be allowed to perform on the stage unless they were masked and if they didn’t put a mask on, they would not be allowed to go on,” said mother Laura Ansel.
Ansel and several other parents tried to get to the bottom of the seemingly sudden decision. Mother Michelle Gore said it wasn’t a simple task whatsoever, especially after hours on a Friday.
“A school board member said that the district did not make the decision, that it was a local administration decision. The local administration said no, it was clearly coming from the district. So they were kind of blaming each other, nobody would make the call. At one point, they even told us that the waivers we signed we’re not valid, yet they came from the district,” explained Gore.
Despite the district’s guidance that night, parents went up on stage and said the show will go on without masks.
“We announced that we were doing this for our children and that we knew full well all along that this was the expectation,” said Gore. “We also encouraged anybody in the audience that was uncomfortable that we would gladly refund their money and allow them to leave their performance. Nobody left, many people stood up and cheered and clapped and we were very happy with the decision that we made,” she continued.
Parents have been seeking clarity from the district.
“One thing that we did not understand is why our children would be treated differently than those who are in the athletic program. If this is the same waiver allowing wrestlers to perform and basketball players to perform and football players and track athletes… If all of these different other organizations can perform if they sign a waiver, why could our children not? Our audience was masked, we had plenty of space for physical distancing, we had a Zoom link for those who did not want to come and sit in the audience,” said Ansel. “It was just a really heartbreaking display of double standards that I haven’t had a satisfactory answer to yet,” she continued.
8 On Your Side contacted district officials who said they were unaware arts students at Woodland Middle School were rehearsing without masks for months.
“All of our Arts Teachers are required to align with the Face Mask Policy (School Board Policy 3.24) currently in effect. There have been numerous, exceptional performances held throughout the District that have followed these same expectations,” wrote a district spokesperson. “We are hopeful that school communities will be able to address any potential concerns in advance of future performances by perhaps considering an outdoor venue, a larger venue (like the gymnasium), or following the Face Mask Policy,” the spokesperson continued.
District officials told 8 On Your Side athletic event guidance was based on the Florida High School Athletic Association’s rules and arts teachers were given guidance based on national and State Federation Guidance in the Arts.
“Waivers were initially made available at the beginning of the school year. Families have to provide a signed waiver for any student who wishes to participate in extracurricular activities. The same waiver was used for all extracurricular activities, including athletics,” said a district spokesperson.
“We are trying to stand up for our kids and say they need to be treated equally,” said Gore.
Students at the middle school are preparing for an end-of-year showcase. District officials have said masks will be required. So, parents are working with school officials to find a creative solution that works for everyone.
“At this point, we are considering going off campus. We have basically been told that if we want to perform without the masks on, that is what we need to do,” said Gore.
“What I’m hoping for is that we can shine a light on what happened here and figure out where the communication broke down. Why was this group of children treated differently and how can we make sure that this doesn’t happen again moving forward,” said Ansel. “Let’s make sure that our arts students programs are treated equally and treated the same as the athletic program students and somewhere at the administration level, those types of conversations need to be happening and we need to make sure that all of our kids are encouraged and supported for their passions,” she continued.