When 12-year-old Lila Hartley heard her school district was not going to be requiring masks this school year as coronavirus cases were soaring in her home state of Florida, she thought of her 10-year-old brother, Will, who can’t get vaccinated yet.
“Me and my brother are siblings, so we have our fights, but I love him and I'd hate for him and any other child who can't get vaccinated to get sick or die,” she told NBC News. “You've been seeing a lot of kids who can't get vaccinated or who are unvaccinated and have been like really vulnerable end up in hospitals or dying, and it’s terrible.”
“I don't want that to happen to anybody because it's just so horrifying,” she added.
So, Lila wrote a letter to the Duval County School Board advocating for a mask mandate for schools to keep her brother and other children like him safe, writing, “masks save lives, that’s a fact.”
“Masks are important so we can continue to enjoy in-person school and not have to hurt families and staff by this terrible virus,” she wrote.
Lila said she wrote the letter because she wanted “school officials to see that parents aren't the only ones who are concerned, and that kids also want to be safe and keep everyone safe and keep our masks on.”
On July 30, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order banning mask mandates for students in schools.
“The federal government has no right to tell parents that in order for their kids to attend school in person, they must be forced to wear a mask all day, every day,” he said in a statement announcing the order.
Matt Hartley, Lila’s father, who has organized rallies in support of requiring masks in schools, said his daughter “serves as an inspiration and just gives me more reason to fight.”
“We saw the delta variant come raging into our area and as parents, it started to dawn on me that as this oncoming train was coming at us, so was the beginning of the school year,” he said.
On Tuesday, dozens of mask mandate supporters gathered outside the Duval County Public Schools building in Jacksonville ahead of a school board meeting about the issue.
The board voted Tuesday night to require students to wear masks unless parents submit paperwork opting out of the policy.
“We had some level of success with our school board who voted for a mask mandate with an opt out, which we are continuing pressure for that to actually be implemented,” Hartley said. “The onus will be on parents to opt out, so we hope that will mean that most people will be masked, but we’re keeping up pressure on the school board to make sure that policy is clear.”
Lila said she hoped to maybe next create a pamphlet for students who may not know about the science regarding masks and the coronavirus.
She said she has learned so far that using her voice “shows people your compassion and that you really care" about the issue you are fighting for.
“Speaking up definitely does something,” she said.