TAMPA, Fla. — Parents are asking Hillsborough County school leaders to take action and require face masks again for the upcoming school year.
At Tuesday's regular school board meeting, they plan to turn out for public comment. They're citing a climbing positivity rate for COVID-19, which is now around 18% in Hillsborough County, and the risks of sending unvaccinated children, unmasked, back into schools.
Right now, face masks are optional in Hillsborough County Schools for the upcoming 2021-2022 school year.
"The risk is just not worth it," said Damaris Allen, a Hillsborough County parent who is helping mobilize other families and educators to petition the school board to require face masks again this year. "It worked last year. We saw that kids were able to stay in school."
These same parents also say this is an equity issue, as there are students and staff with immune issues, diabetes and other health problems that put them at higher risk for contracting the virus.
"That's a lot to ask of our kids," Allen said. "And we're really not setting up our students and our teachers for success."
But even if they wanted to, Hillsborough school board members tell ABC Action News it may be hard to require masks. That's because Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has said no matter what individual districts decide on face coverings, he's promising "no penalties" for violators.
"No mandates for anything," DeSantis said at a press event last week. "I think it's very unfair for some of the youngest kids who are the least susceptible, least likely to spread it they have the mitigation imposed on them more severely than a lot of adults do."
Current CDC guidance recommends but does not require students under 12 to wear masks.
At Tuesday's meeting, school board members will be presented with a letter signed by 180 local doctors asking them to "reinstate the mask mandate."
While doctors agree many children don't come down with serious cases of the virus, they say that is not always the case, citing some instances of "severe infection and even death in pediatric cases of COVID-19” in Tampa Bay.
Dr. Lisa Cronin and Dr. Beatriz Sankey with Children’s Medical Center both signed it.
"There’s no vaccine available yet for kids under 12, and so the masks are the only defense that these kids have at this point,” Cronin said.
The Florida Teachers Union has said they think it should be up to districts to decide about mask policies.
"The people to best make decisions as to what should happen in school districts are in fact, the elected school boards, the teachers and staff, the health officials in a community," said Andrew Spar, who serves as the president of the Florida Education Association.
That's something Allen says she will continue to champion.
"Bottom line, it's about keeping our kids safe," she said.
ABC Action News reached out to the Office of Governor DeSantis Monday afternoon. His press office responded with this emailed statement:
There is no indication that any school district will require masks for all students this upcoming school year. We hope that all the districts will follow the science and will make their own decisions to go mask-optional. Governor DeSantis said last week that if any school district does attempt to mandate masks, the state legislature would have a special session to prevent that. But there is no reason to assume that would happen, because at this point, from what we are seeing, school districts around the state are committed to a normal school year in which masks are optional.
Tuesday's Hillsborough County School Board meeting begins at 4 p.m.