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School board candidates have their say on student masks

Many say the positives of face coverings outweigh the negatives as Florida fights the COVID-19 pandemic.

The issue of masks is on a lot of people’s minds as they prepare for the return to school. With school board elections just around the corner, we thought we would put the question to our 29 local school board candidates:

Should students and staff be required to wear masks when classes resume in August? Why or why not?

Hillsborough County so far says masks are optional, although plans are not yet final. Pasco is leaning toward a mandate. Pinellas County has not released its plan, but purchased a half-million masks.

Related: Will schools mandate masks? The answer will not please everyone.

Early voting begins later this month for the Aug. 18 primaries.

Here is what the candidates said, edited for brevity:

Hillsborough County District 1

Steve Cona (incumbent): “Mask should be strongly recommended. District will be supplying mask to all students and teachers.”

Ben “Floridaman” Greene: “Masks will definitely be required until next year after new data comes in.”

Nadia Combs: “This question is far too complex for a yes or no answer. The appropriate answer will depend upon several variables including the status of the virus in our area at the time and new data on the virus that will be uncovered between now and then. In addition, different mask policies will be appropriate for children of different ages groups.”

Bill Person: “Yes, The district and state are responsible in ensuring each school and each child has access to a mask, regardless of the number of masks needed.”

Hillsborough County District 3

Alexandra Gilmore: “This is a tough question but if kids and staff have to wear mask then it shouldn’t it be decided with teachers and parents. There should be options available as well such as virtual. We need to get back to allowing parents and teachers a seat at the table for major decisions such as these.”

Leo Haggerty: “The simple answer is yes. It’s the science. The complex answer is yes but what do you do with employees and students who do not wear a mask or parents that come to pick up their child and do not have a mask. For easy math, let’s say you have a school site of 1000 individuals. If just 2% show up without a mask, that’s 20 people. Now, do you sequester them? If so, where? As you can see, a whole lot of i’s to dot and t’s to cross but everyone wearing a mask is the safest way of protecting students and employees and that should be the paramount objective.”

Jennifer Hill: “Yes!”

Mitch Thrower: “If the COVID-19 cases continue to rise and if staff with advice from medical professionals makes a recommendation that wearing masks will help curve the expansion of COVID-19, then yes I would fully support students being required to wear masks. If parents have a reason why their child should not wear a mask then the district should handle those situations on a case by case basis. "

Jessica Vaughn: “Yes, I believe we should require students and staff to wear masks when classes resume in August. I understand that wearing a mask can be uncomfortable and that they come with their own challenges. I also understand that parents want choices. However, I believe that the district is already giving parents a choice by offering a full time, brick and mortar option; as well as virtual options. Our #1 priority during a global pandemic (which has already killed half a million people) should be keeping our students and school staff safe. ... I also believe that we should have face shields available as an option for our school staff, or for any student who might struggle with a typical face mask; along with mask washing stations in the classrooms.”

Rick Warrener: “Yes, if classes resume on campus. However, I don’t see how classes can resume with buses and classrooms providing the perfect environment for the spread of the virus. How can we justify risking the life of one student or school employee? I think we should be assuming that classes will not resume on site before January and start finding ways to help parents of elementary school children find child care during their work hours.”

Hillsborough County District 5

Elvis Piggott: “Yes, I am in support of our students and staff being required to wear masks when classes resume in August. This is a safety issue that we can’t take lightly. In order to stop the spread and keep our students and staff healthy and safe, masks need to be worn. We must remember that the health and wellbeing of our staff and students is paramount.”

Henry “Shake” Washington: “Yes, a mask should be required. The school district follows the CDC guidelines of wearing masks, social distancing and hand washing will help reduce the spread of COVID-19. However, students who do not wear masks should not face any consequences.”

Tamara Shamburger (incumbent): “We are writing the reopening playbook by the hour as data and information is rapidly changing. CDC guidance is still pending on this issue so our response could be very different tomorrow than it is today. However, if a decision had to be made today, I believe masks, or proper PPE, should be mandatory for all students and staff until the threat of this pandemic has safely passed. The safety of our students and staff are just too important to risk by not having some sort of mandate in place. Neither can we afford educationally to have schools shut down again if an outbreak occurs. As a current School Board member and COVID-19 survivor, the well-being of our students and staff is my priority and should be that of the Superintendent as well.”

Selena Ward: Did not yet respond.

Hillsborough County District 7

Lynn Gray (incumbent): “Yes...yesiree...I just visited a few principals so far this week and the main hiccup is how to enforce mask wearing. Well...so if 10% do not wear them...isn’t it better to have 90% protected than nothing at all?”

Sally Harris: “I feel it should be optional. I do not feel it should be required. Teachers and administrators would have to spend too much time monitoring who has a mask on and who doesn’t. If optional students or teachers that have compromised health would be able to protect themselves.”

Angela Schroden: “At this time, with the information we know and recognizing this is a day-by-day and sometimes moment-to-moment fluid situation, it makes sense to include masks as ONE of several safety protocols and procedures that should be included in our back-to-school plan. It is the first recommendation for elementary and secondary schools in the guidelines released by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Distance when possible, masks for the times that distance is not possible, access to hand washing and/or anti-bacterial gel, utilizing outdoor space, minimize crossover of students and adults, and, like educators always do, paying attention to the children under their care.”

Jeffery Johnson: “I do believe that they should be made available but not required. Social distancing to the best way possible is the most feasible position at this time. I have a 7 year old son and I know he would not keep a mask on all day. We should make sure there are safety measures in place. Parents should not knowingly send their children to school if they have a fever or cold and likewise for teachers. Hand sanitizing stations and thermometers should be accessible and available.”

Pinellas County District 1

Laura Hine: “As the executive director of a public-serving organization, I have had to face this same question and we have decided, yes, masks are required for visitors and employees. I do want to acknowledge that it is not easy. But it is right. So, if it is right, the next question is how to we best implement/manage it, knowing it is not going to be perfect? Then, we war game all of those scenarios. It is not easy for a district of our size and diversity, but we can do it.”

Stephanie Meyer: “As a teacher, I believe it is unrealistic to expect children to wear a mask in Florida for 8 hours a day. I do believe that masks should be worn when many students will come in contact with each other, especially when social distancing is not an option (changing of classes for middle or high school) however; beyond that, I believe wearing a mask or not is a personal choice. The district should outline clear guidelines for families regarding illnesses like staying home if you’re sick, self-monitoring for symptoms, frequent hand washing, frequent use of hand sanitizer and self-quarantine if there is a suspected exposure to COVID-19.”

Tom Topping: “I believe the science that currently says masks reduce the spread of this virus. In a school setting, there would be exceptions for children who are very young (kindergarten-2nd grade.) However, if older students can’t properly social distance and they do not have a medical condition that would prohibit the use of a mask, then I would say yes. The question then becomes how do you enforce the requirement if they refuse? Masks cannot lead to a disruption in learning.”

Pinellas County District 4

Chris Hardman: “CDC guidelines as well as State and local government requirements in August will indicate what safety measures are necessary for students and staff at that time.”

Eileen Long (incumbent): “As hard as this is, I think we’re going to have to. If we’re going to send kids back into the buildings, we have to do everything we can to keep them safe and healthy. So, yes, they should wear them until we know.”

Pinellas County District 7

Caprice Edmond: “Yes. Safety should be our priority. Right now it seems that public health experts and our local government leaders believe that wearing masks is very important. Given the recent increase in COVID-19 cases we need to make tough decisions to provide a safe environment and masks will be a part of that. We all know this is going to be exceptionally difficult, especially for our younger students and elementary teachers but we need to make our best effort to be safe.”

Corey Givens Jr.: “Education, as we once knew it, has changed forever. The traditional brick and mortar school campus has become a thing of the past. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some children will return to the physical classroom, but others – due to multiple reasons, will not. It’s important that we give our students and their families options: a traditional school setting, a hybrid model or 100% virtual learning. If we are to physically return to campus in August, I support requiring students and staff to wear face masks.”

Sharon Jackson: “Yes, everyone should be required to wear masks as a protection to themselves and others. Science has shown that droplets are expelled even as we speak or sing. It’s possible for the virus to be in the body with no symptoms. Another reason is to reduce the risk of transmission to family members.”

Karl Nurse: “First, we need to identify the ability to ‘social distance’ in the classrooms. Some schools and classes may provide that opportunity without masks. I suspect that we will have to use masks in many cases. We will need to have multiple options available depending upon the situation in 60 days. The trend lines this week ... look bad.”

Pasco County District 4

Alison Crumbley (incumbent): “At this time, although the Covid-19 situation changes weekly, I think students will have to wear masks or face coverings. An overwhelming majority of teachers and parents want this according to our surveys. They are the stakeholders I must listen to.”

Joshua Stringfellow: “The focus of the coronavirus response should be on practices that maintain social distancing and increase sanitization. ... Presuming that by August, the Florida case growth looks more like it did at the end of May, masks should be used only in areas where maintaining social distancing is not possible, such as when riding the bus.”

Hernando County District 2

Charles Helm: Did not yet respond.

Linda Prescott (incumbent): “Currently, Hernando County is not requiring mandatory masks. The School District has purchased masks for employees with the expectation that all staff wear masks in common areas. Masks have been shown to prevent the spread of the virus. Some students and staff are not able to wear masks for health reasons. They are obviously excused. I am in favor of requiring students and staff to wear masks because by doing so they could be saving a life. I took my oath for the School Board very seriously and the health, welfare, and safety of employees, students, and families is my #1 priority.”

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