Thousands of kids in the Tampa Bay area will return to the classroom for a new school year this week. While the debate on masks in schools is still top of mind, local doctors are also stressing what precautions to take to help keep kids as safe as possible while COVID-19 cases continue to rise.
“They’re excited. They’re ready to see their friends,” said Shirley DeWitt.
DeWitt has two kids in Hillsborough County Schools. In getting ready for a new school year, she had conversations with her kids on masks, including her five-year-old.
“I said, ‘This is up to you. I’m going to leave this up to you. Here’s what you would have to do if you didn’t wear it, and this is up to you.’ And she said, ‘Mom, the mask is the safest. That’s what I feel most comfortable with,” said DeWitt.
Hillsborough County Schools will require masks as a mitigation measure for the start of the new school year, but it will allow parents to opt their children out from wearing one. The district also says it is continuing to “highly recommend all employees wear a face covering or mask, therefore, it will remain optional for employees.”
Several Tampa Bay area school districts tackled the issue Monday. For now, masks remain optional for students and staff at Manatee County Schools. In Pinellas County Schools, masks will be strongly recommended, but not required.
After an hours-long meeting Monday, Pinellas County district leaders decided having opt-out forms would create too much work for the district, while also wanting teachers to be able to teach and not have to police mask usage.
Still, Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Grego says they’ll continue to stress the importance of masks for both students and staff.
“We want to fully respect all parents as they make those choices with their students. So no opt-in, opt-out, but rather let’s have some really intelligent conversations between parents and students,” said Grego.
“If your child is old enough to be vaccinated and they’ve not yet been vaccinated, please consider vaccination,” said Dr. Allison Messina, the chief of the Division of Infectious Disease at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital.
ABC Action News spoke to Dr. Messina on sending kids back to school as safely as possible as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in the state. On top of the vaccine, Dr. Messina suggests not sending your kids to school if they’re sick, reminding even regular cold-like symptoms could be COVID.
Messina suggests parents make sure their kids are up to date on their other vaccines, so we don’t see more illnesses, like the flu, in the middle of this pandemic. She also recommends sending kids to school with masks, explaining it’s especially important for kids too young to be vaccinated.
“Even if you are vaccinated, if you’re going to be in a classroom with a lot of other people all day long, probably not a bad idea to wear your mask too,” said Messina. “That layered protection makes it even safer.”
Claudia Carrion has a daughter and a granddaughter in Hillsborough and Pasco County Schools. Her message to other parents is to take COVID seriously and talk to your kids about the precautions they should take.
“I know it’s pretty much impossible in school to stay six feet apart, but at least wear their masks, and that’s all we can do try to get out of this rut that we’re in,” said Carrion.