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Hillsborough enacts new, more restrictive mask mandate starting Thursday

COVID-19 cases impact over 10,000 teachers and students
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Posted at 7:36 AM, Aug 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-24 08:41:30-04

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla.  — The Hillsborough County School Board voted 5-2 Wednesday evening to enact a more restrictive mask mandate for students, teachers, and staff in county schools for 30 days starting Thursday, August 19 through Friday, Sept. 17. Face masks will be required, however, there is a medical exemption opt-out.

The governor's office released the following statement in response to the new restrictions:

"The forced masking of schoolchildren infringes upon parents’ rights to make health and educational decisions for their own children. No politician is above the law, even the Palm Beach County school board members.

It is disappointing that the school board chose to change their mask policy — which had previously protected the freedom for parents to opt their kids out, in compliance with Florida law.

As for the next steps, we would defer to Jared Ochs & Cheryl Etters at FLDOE for more information on possible consequences of violating the law."

School board members came together after thousands of students were put into quarantine or isolation due to contracting COVID or being exposed to the disease.

As of August 18, the district says less than 1% of its current student and staff population in Hillsborough County Public Schools has reported a positive COVID case. As of Wednesday morning, the impact on schools is as follows:

  • 10,384 students, or 4.8% of the total student population, are in isolation or quarantine
  • 338 employees, or 1.4 % of the total employee count, are in isolation or quarantine

RELATED: 8,400 Hillsborough students isolated or quarantined one week into school year

For reference, isolation refers to individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19, while quarantine refers to those who have had close contact with a positive case.

The meeting kicked off at 1 p.m. and ran for more than four and a half hours. Superintendent Addison Davis started off the meeting talking about the “difficult position” COVID continues to put schools and parents in as the pandemic continues unabated.

“With this said, I want this community to understand, we understand the sensitivity of COVID and how it interacts with our schools,” Davis said. “Many decisions we have made have been divided, and it’s unfortunate because we should stand united for our children.”

Before public comment started, Superintendent Davis said his recommendation was to continue to have the district enact the mask mandate with a parental opt-out, which has been the policy since the beginning of the school year. Davis later said his recommendation was based upon the need to follow the law from the executive order, but said he would support and implement any ruling coming from the board.

School board member Nadia Combs made a motion for a new mask mandate with only medical exemptions, removing the parental choice option. The motion was seconded and that kicked off the hours of discussion, warnings, and wrangling with what to do as COVID continues to spread.

School board attorney James Porter discussed what could happen if the board voted to enact the more restrictive mask mandate and said they could face penalties from the state, up to and including removal, withholding money, and more. Porter mentioned that both Alachua and Broward County will face undefined sanctions from the state for their actions enacting similar more restrictive mask mandates.

Porter said district lawyers would make a legal argument the district’s new mandate remains legal under the state guidelines, but warned the other two districts made similar arguments and were rejected by the state.

During the meeting, Miami-Dade County Schools also enacted a similar mask mandate as the one adopted by Hillsborough. Meaning, some of the largest school districts in the state, and nation, now have similar mask mandates that may or may not pass muster with the State Board of Education.

After Porter finished, the community was allowed to speak, and passionate speeches from members of the community on both sides of the mask debate were given. Community members were limited to two minutes in their comments, with most using the entire time to make their specific points.

Many parents pleaded with the board to do more to protect their children by enacting more restrictive mask policies as COVID continues to spread. Physicians and other medical professionals also spoke in favor of increasing mask usage because as one said, the ER is “drowning in patients.”

Still, some opponents said a more restrictive mask mandate was about “tyranny” or a “power grab” by the board, and some parents asked for the choice to make the decision on masks for their children. One person went so far as to liken the discussion on more restrictive mask mandates to 1930s Germany.

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After around 75 minutes of public comment, the board was then shown data by the Florida Department of Health for Hillsborough County and the spread of COVID-19 in the area. The DOH told the board the positivity rate in the county was approximately 22 percent and that case rates per 100,000 people in all school-age groups were at the highest they had been since the pandemic began in 2020.

The board was also told pediatric emergency room visits and admissions have both been increasing in the last two weeks and that the DOH expects that trend to continue.

When the DOH finished their presentation, the board began asking medical experts, who were joining virtually, about their views of mask mandates and what might happen. The medical experts weighed in on the side of increasing the usage of masks and removing the parental choice aspect.

Chairwoman Lynn Gray asked one expert what would happen if masks were mandated in a more restrictive way, and the expert said it would “reduce” the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

At one point, Board member Melissa Snively discussed her hesitance to vote in favor of the more restrictive mask mandate. She said she was not ready to “break the law” in her vote, referring to Governor Ron DeSantis’ executive order and rules from the Florida Board of Education. Her view was shared by Superintendent Davis, but Board member Jessica Vaughn pushed back on the idea of “breaking the law,” while also asking for more changes to be made to classrooms, including breaking up the usage of pods.

Gray remarked during the discussion to fellow members one area she thinks they all can agree on is they want their teachers, staff, and children to be safe.

“All I’ve got to say folks is if we’re just asking for a 30-day protective measure, isn’t that the least we can do for our children? If it saves one life? Ten hospitalizations? Isn’t that the least that we can do?” said Gray.

The discussion continued through the 5 p.m. hour with board members questioning Porter and Davis about the feasibility of enacting the changes quickly and the legal issues that might arise from their decision.

Around 5:45 p.m., it finally came time for the board members to make their positions official. Chairwoman Gray called the vote, and in seconds, the vote was shown to be 5-2 in favor of the more restrictive mask mandate. Specifically, the mask mandate will not allow parental opt-outs and instead will require medical opt-outs if students can’t wear a mask in school.

Hillsborough County Schools said students who have a medical exemption to the mask mandate need to submit medical documentation from a licensed health care provider that the student has a medical, physical, or psychological condition that prevents the student from being able to safely wear a mask.

Details on how the policy will be enforced and any potential penalties weren’t made clear but may mirror the rules in place during the last school year. With enforcing the policy, Superintendent Davis said the biggest thing is to do everything they can to educate students and parents.

"I think there may be some friction with parent’s wishes related to the new plan, but we’re going to help coach them through this, and it’s only 30 days, and while it may be uncomfortable and I get it, no one wants to wear a mask for those who aspire not to, but sometimes, we’ve got to do something that’s greater for the community," said Davis.

The ball now volleys back to the side of Governor DeSantis and the Florida Board of Education and how they will handle now four school districts enacting masking rules that are more restrictive as COVID-19 continues to spread uncontrollably through the state.