Eight-year-old Fiona Lashells walked onto her elementary school campus Monday with a pink backpack and the fanfare of a homecoming war veteran. Family friends waved signs and cheered. A state legislator strode proudly alongside.
It was, in a sense, a return from battle. For two months, the second-grader and her mother had waged an increasingly high-profile standoff against the Palm Beach County public schools over their mask mandate.
Refusing to wear a facial covering, Fiona amassed nearly 40 days of suspensions in September and October, requiring her to spend weeks doing her classwork at home. She and her mother spoke out at school board meetings and posted videos online, winning plaudits from conservative media and political leaders.
To seemingly everyone’s relief, the standoff is over. Amid falling COVID-19 cases and an unfavorable court decision, the school district last week made masks optional once more on its campuses, clearing the way for Fiona to return, for the first time in more than two months, to her classroom.
By then, her case had become a flash point in the national mask debate, and a jolting example of either youthful bravery or melodrama, depending on who you ask.
Fueled by her mother, Bailey Lashells, who meticulously documented Fiona’s plight in videos and online posts, the situation drew the attention of conservative news media, building national interest that culminated last week in Fiona’s appearance on Fox News alongside Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The clamor was all still fresh in everyone’s mind when the 8-year-old who likes unicorns and purple nail polish walked nervously to class at Discovery Key Elementary, a 1,000-student campus west of Lake Worth Beach.
The return “kind of felt a bit weird,” she said.
But the feeling passed quickly as she left a small entourage of well-wishers, including state Rep. Mike Caruso, R-Boca Raton, to reunite with classmates and reacclimate herself to the regular school day.
School district leaders hope that return to normalcy is a common pattern across its roughly 180 schools, as the end of its mask mandate relieves some of the tension that has gripped campuses and school board meetings.
By the end of this week, the district said 10% of its students had opted out of wearing masks.
But while Fiona’s case was an extraordinary display of how far the debate can go, it was also notable for how rare it was.
When the school district joined several other counties in implementing mandates in August, there was widespread concern about mass disobedience. Dozens of angry parents had spent all summer protesting outside school board meetings, and dozens more waited hours each week to denounce the mandate to board members.
But the school district says that over two months, just 23 of its roughly 166,000 students received suspensions for failing to comply with mask requirements.
“There was a lot more talk early on, with people saying they weren’t going to do it,” said Deputy Schools Superintendent Ed Tierney. But in the end, “almost everyone went along with it. There really weren’t the widespread refusals to do it.”
Fiona wore a mask to school all of last year, but she complained they made her tired, and she worried that breathing through one all day could be unsanitary. She said she was relieved when the school district announced this summer that masks would not be required when classes resumed in August.
And she was dismayed when COVID-19 cases spiked in July and August, and the school district reversed course.
Her mother, who had already promised she wouldn’t have to wear a mask to school again, said she was not going to let the schools make a liar of her. So when the mask mandate resumed Aug 23, Fiona went to school without one.
“We promised her she wouldn’t have to wear a mask,” Lashells said. “I think that’s what upset her so much. We had made that promise to her at the beginning of the year.”
Lashells is regularly accused of putting her daughter up to her anti-mask stance. But she insists the idea was always Fiona’s. “She’s been just so adamant that she wants to make sure everyone can go back to school and have a choice,” she said. “I just love the people thinking I’m the one doing it.”
The week after the mandate took effect, Fiona’s disciplinary measures began.
First, she was required to eat lunch alone in a hallway outside administrators’ offices. The next day she was removed from the classroom. Then she received a formal in-school suspension.
Out-of-school suspensions followed — the first one Sept. 3, her mother said, and 11 more after that. She would be sent home three days at a time, with bundles of worksheets to complete on her own. “Every three days I take her back and she gets the next suspension,” Lashells said.
The weeks at home took a toll, leaving Fiona dismayed, at times, to be cut off from classmates and teachers.
“I didn’t get to see my friends, that’s the sad part,” she recalled. “But I did most of my work.”
Her mother, though, said Fiona was insistent on staying the course. They both saw it, she said, as a principled stand for the right to choose whether to wear a mask.
In those weeks, Fiona started showing up at school board meetings, where she would stand during the public-comment period and read prepared remarks in a wavering voice.
The sight of a tiny girl recounting her exile from school was striking in meetings populated almost entirely by adults. To the shock of many, she ended each speech with a dig at school district leaders.
“In closing, I hope everyone doing this to me goes to jail, thank you,” she said at one meeting in September.
“Mr. Burke, I want to say you suck, but instead your actions suck,” she said to Superintendent Mike Burke at a meeting in October.
Lashells said the jabs were Fiona’s own idea. But she didn’t mind them. There were far worse things, she pointed out, for a child to say in anger. By the first week of November, Fiona had missed two months of school, and her fate had reached the attention of the governor.
On Nov. 3, Fiona and DeSantis appeared together in an interview on “Fox and Friends,” the channel’s morning news show, where she shyly answered questions from the hosts and DeSantis railed against the school board.
“To keep a child out of school for that long, that’s totally unacceptable,” DeSantis said on the air.
The school district declined to comment directly on Fiona’s case but said in a statement that its mask mandate was implemented “to offset the imminent threat to the community and our ability to keep schools open for in-person instruction.”
With the lifting of the mandate, all of that is seemingly in the past now, and Fiona seems happy for it to stay there. She’s glad to see her friends every day at school now, she says, and in an interview this week she seemed less preoccupied by masks than in her speeches to school board members.
Still, she was mindful to reiterate a key point both she and her mother have made repeatedly: that her mask standoff wasn’t just a matter of personal comfort.
She did it “for other kids,” she said, “not just for myself.”
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Fiona Lashells returns to school after being suspended over masks