9th grader scrambles for options after being told not to return to SGH

Elliott Waterbury

BY HEATHER HANNAFORD

Elliott Waterbury, a 9e student at Gainesville High School, says he’s had enough of wearing masks and has decided to take a stand. Elliott says after wearing masks for an entire school year and seeing COVID-19 cases rise and fall despite those measures, he was relieved that Governor DeSantis had signed the Parents’ Bill of Rights and looked forward to drop the mask. But the Alachua County School Board refuses to recognize this law, as implemented in the Florida Department of Health’s Emergency Rule 64-DER21-12, COVID-19 Control Protocols in school.

Elliott’s mother had signed a parental exclusion form before the school board on August 6 required exemptions to be signed by a medical professional. After complying with the rule for the first two weeks of school, Elliott, feeling caught between the state and the school board, decided to take a stand and began refusing to wear a mask on the grounds that the county of Alachua was breaking state law. That’s when the trouble started.

Elliott went through his first two periods on Monday with little to no pushback from teachers. In his second period lesson, nothing was said and several other students also chose not to wear masks. When Elliott arrived at his third period class, the teacher pulled Elliott aside and told him to put on a mask or go straight to the principal. Elliott chose to go to the principal. When Elliott met Principal Diane Leinenbach, he told her he believed Gainesville High was breaking state law. According to Elliott, Leinenbach’s response was, “We don’t follow DeSantis’ decisions; we follow the decisions of Alachua County. Leinenbach told Elliott he could put on a mask or quit school. Elliott chose to leave.

Elliott’s mother, Christy Waterbury, was called to the school to pick up Elliott and sort out the situation. She supports Elliott’s choice to refuse to mask up, but asked the school if there were any accommodations due to the opt-out rule. The school told her she could apply for a Hope scholarship and go to a private school, however, there are no more places available at local private schools. Christy also contacted Florida Virtual School, but they don’t accept new applicants until November. The school also suggested that Christy could send Elliott to Marion County on a Hope scholarship. Christy said it was not an option for her family because she had to make sure her other children went to school and she went to work. Marion County is just too far by car for Elliott to drive to and from school every day. In an email, the school told Christy that the Hope Scholarship could pay for transportation, but she said that upon reviewing it, she couldn’t find that option.

The school told Elliott that if he refused to wear a mask, he would get a referral that would follow him throughout his school career, and he would not be allowed to return until he complied. When Christy sent an email asking if Elliott could stay online until they found a viable option for him, his teacher locked his access to Canvas within the hour. They are currently discussing the possibility of an eSchool through Alachua County with Gainesville High, but the response has been slow, and in the meantime Elliott is not attending any classes.

This situation weighed heavily on Elliott and his mother. When they contacted Elliott’s pediatrician at UF Health for advice, the office specifically told them they would not sign any mask waivers for neurotypical children. Christy says she understands the mandate but wants a viable educational option for families who wish to opt out of masking. The Alachua County School Board said it follows the law because it allows Hope Scholarships as an option, but Christy thinks if there’s nowhere to go, it’s not a viable option. And students like Elliott are forced to either go against their conscience and state law or jeopardize their education.

Christy and Elliott Waterbury await news from the administration and continue to seek options that will allow Elliott to continue his education.


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