TAMPA — Reversing a position that stirred anxiety among public school staff and families, Hillsborough County superintendent Addison Davis announced Tuesday that teachers and students must wear masks when campuses reopen in August.
Previously, Davis had said masks would be encouraged, but optional. He changed his mind after consulting with medical, education and community leaders, and hearing from many teachers and parents.
“This is a movement that must be taken in order to protect our children,” Davis said. “My responsibility is to take every proactive step I can to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
The plan, he explained, is to have students, staff, visitors and vendors wear facial coverings in any shared space where social distancing cannot occur. That includes classrooms, hallways and buses.
“Anywhere we can follow the CDC guidelines and have the social distancing, there’s the opportunity for breaks to take place,” Davis said, noting how difficult it can be to wear a mask for long periods.
The district also will have medical exceptions available for students and staff with specific demonstrated concerns.
To make the mandate easier on everyone, Davis said, the district will provide three reusable masks to every student and staff member. It also will allow for clear face shields in place of masks, he said, especially in classes where facial communication is critical, such as certain special education and therapy programs.
If students forget or lose their masks, he added, the district will have plenty of disposable ones available. For athletics, the district will defer to Florida High School Athletic Association guidelines.
He stressed that, while the rule will be mandatory, he does not want to see students face punitive consequences for refusing to wear masks. Rather, Davis said the district will work to educate students and parents about the value of the masks in fighting back the coronavirus.
But if students continue to defy the rule, he added, the district will take disciplinary action with families involved.
“We have multiple pathways they can select” for their classes, Davis noted, listing virtual models offered outside the school buildings.
The new rule will be in place as long as the numbers of coronavirus cases continue to rise and cause angst within the community, Davis said. If conditions change, he said, so too might the rule.
Mary Anderson, a University of Tampa professor and one of the parent leaders pushing for masks, said she was ecstatic about the news. “This is the best, simplest first step that he can take,” she said.
Parents who had planned to advocate for the masks at Tuesday’s School Board meeting lined up to thank Davis instead.
“I know that it’s not always easy to provide leadership to a community,” Mitchell Elementary parent Rachel Fineman said. “Not all of your constituents are going to agree. I appreciate your leadership on this issue.”
Kindergarten parent Tricia Will said she had been considering other options for her child before the announcement. “That has helped us make the decision to continue in the public school system,” she said.
The news also pleased teachers who had attended a meeting with Davis on Monday and, in some cases, left with concerns about their work conditions.
“I feel way more confident than 24 hours ago,” said Valerie Chuchman, a chemistry teacher at Riverview High School and secretary-treasurer of the teachers’ union. Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, the union’s executive director, told Davis at the board meeting, “I have not had 20,000 people be so happy to have a hard decision made.”
But, on social media sites, other parents and teachers questioned how the district will enforce the rule, and whether young children will be able to remain masked for hours at a time.
Davis told the School Board his staff is already working on informational and promotional materials to create a culture of mask-wearing in the schools.