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Tampa Bay school leaders plan to watch, wait on mask decisions for fall

They showed no inclination to rush into new policies after education commissioner Richard Corcoran pushed to make masks voluntary next school year.
Student Zachary Ashcroft wears a Mickey Mouse mask at Hillsborough High on the first day of the 2020-21 school year for Hillsborough County.
Student Zachary Ashcroft wears a Mickey Mouse mask at Hillsborough High on the first day of the 2020-21 school year for Hillsborough County. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Apr. 15
Updated Apr. 15

The state’s call to give Florida students the choice of whether to wear masks in school starting in August fell short of winning clear backing in Tampa area districts on Thursday.

School districts in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties agreed their hope and goal is to return campuses to the normal operations that preceded the pandemic.

But they signaled an unwillingness to commit at this time to education commissioner Richard Corcoran’s request that they revise their facial covering policies from mandatory to voluntary.

Hillsborough superintendent Addison Davis praised students, faculty and staff for their commitment to keeping schools safe during the current school year, as growing numbers returned to in-person lessons. Davis attempted to allow classes to run online-only for longer than the state preferred in August, relenting amid threats that the district would lose millions in state funds.

“Our district will continue to work closely with public health experts and local government entities to reevaluate mask guidelines as we move toward next school year,” he said in an email message Thursday. “Hillsborough County Public Schools has successfully implemented proper health protocols since the pandemic began with the help of TGH and USF Health, and we will continue to do so moving through the summer months.”

Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego announced at his School Board’s meeting Tuesday that he would maintain the district’s mask requirement for now, and until his medical advisers recommended otherwise. He did so in the face of dozens of residents who demanded an end to the rule, sometimes with angry and derogatory remarks.

After receiving the commissioner’s letter, Grego did not waver.

“It is the district’s desire and intention to open the 2021-2022 school year as ‘normal’ as possible without a mandatory mask requirement,” Grego said via email Thursday. “We will continue to meet with our medical advisory group members, who have successfully led us through this school year.”

Pinellas officials faced added pressure after the public heard Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning suggest that he might end his district’s mask mandate at the end of April, if Gov. Ron DeSantis ends his public health state of emergency.

Pasco district spokesman Steve Hegarty said Browning reiterated his position to staff, that he is optimistic that in the fall it will no longer be necessary to have a mask requirement. But Pasco, too, will continue to assess the situation and make decisions as conditions dictate.