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Pinellas schools eye move to optional masks for summer classes

School Board members showed no interest in ending the district mask mandate before the school year ends.
A student is pictured holding her mask at St. Petersburg High on the first day of classes in August. Pinellas County school officials say they want to continue the mask mandate through the end of the school year, but might try making them voluntary for summer classes.
A student is pictured holding her mask at St. Petersburg High on the first day of classes in August. Pinellas County school officials say they want to continue the mask mandate through the end of the school year, but might try making them voluntary for summer classes. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Apr. 20
Updated Apr. 20

After hearing from a panel of local medical advisers, the Pinellas County School Board on Tuesday signaled it would stick with its mask mandate for the final 35 days of classes.

Board members suggested, though, that the district’s Summer Bridge program might offer a prime opportunity to test out making the facial coverings optional. If that effort proves viable, they said, the idea would be to keep a voluntary mask policy for the fall.

Summer Bridge is typically attended by about 11,000 students over 100 sites, and the district is looking to expand it this year to help children who have struggled academically under pandemic conditions.

“If you want to call it an experiment or an option, see what happens in the summer and then let it go after that,” said board member Bill Dudley, who suggested the concept during an hourlong conversation about the district’s coronavirus protocols.

The discussion came as part of a board workshop held at Northeast High School, and a week after dozens of residents demanded an end to the mask requirement at the board’s business meeting.

Related: Pinellas schools to stick with masks, health protocols for now

Several board members made clear that they do not enjoy wearing masks, and would like to see the need for them go away.

“I’m ready to not wear a mask and not have our kids wear masks,” board member Nicole Carr said.

The concerns that mask opponents have brought forward weighed on their minds, and they asked the doctors the district has relied upon whether they should worry about such matters. Those included the possibility of negative mental health consequences from wearing masks, and physical health issues.

The experts said masks might impact some children negatively, but most of the effects are negligible.

“There really are no adverse effects to wearing masks,” Dr. Allison Messina, chairman of the Division of Infectious Disease at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, told the board in relation to health matters.

Regarding psychological issues, children appeared to struggle more with isolation from taking classes at home than from wearing masks with friends and teachers at school, said Dr. Christina Canody, a pediatrics specialist with BayCare Medical Group.

The experts stated that the combination of masks, distancing and other protocols at school helped keep the virus from spreading beyond the general community levels. As more adults become vaccinated, they added, herd immunity might help reduce the numbers further — though they noted that new strains are more contagious and moving more rapidly through children.

They recommended sticking with the current rule at least as long as it takes for vaccinations to become effective. With many adults not eligible until April 5, that means a number of them won’t be protected before the classes end.

“It has proven itself to be effective and it is within our routine at this point,” said Dr. Nichelle Threadgill, chief medical officer for Community Health Centers of Pinellas.

Related: Masks should be voluntary in Florida schools this fall, education commissioner says

Keeping continuity was an important factor for board members, who did not want to lose support from the students, families and employees who depended on the district to follow its policies. Superintendent Mike Grego noted that many people have contacted the district saying they sent their children to school because of the clear rules on masks, distancing and other measures.

In recent weeks, those people have outnumbered the mask opponents in emails to the administration by three to one, Grego said.

“This board has to do what’s best for the general population,” Grego said. “The general population truly appreciates our commitment to health and science.”

He supported the idea of attempting a voluntary policy during Summer Bridge, itself a voluntary program.

Lisa Cane, a board member frequently singled out by mask opponents as listening to their side, raised a concern over what might happen if the district maintains a mask order and the Pinellas County Commission does not.

“This could be a potential situation that arises in the next couple of weeks,” Cane said, contending it could lead to distrust within the community if the two agencies take different stances.

Grego noted that the school district and county government are separate entities, and the county’s mask order specifically separates the schools from its jurisdiction. If board members have such worries, though, he said, they should contact commissioners and talk with them about it.

The commission is supposed to talk about masks on May 11, Grego said, and he’s been hearing that county officials don’t want to be at odds with the district, either.