In Tampa Bay schools, the end is in sight for mask mandates

Encouraged by the governor’s Monday emergency order, some angry parents demanded faster action.
Pinellas schools superintendent Mike Grego announced his district will end its school mask mandate on June 9 at 5 p.m.
Pinellas schools superintendent Mike Grego announced his district will end its school mask mandate on June 9 at 5 p.m. [ DIRK SHADD | Times (2014) ]
Published May 4, 2021|Updated May 4, 2021

Pinellas County district schools won’t require students to wear masks after the current semester ends on June 9.

Superintendent Mike Grego announced the decision, first discussed at the School Board’s April 20 workshop, a day after Gov. Ron DeSantis declared Florida’s health emergency essentially over. Grego said it made sense to continue the rule through the end of classes, because it was a promise made to families who agreed to send their children back to campuses for in-person learning.

“They tell us repeatedly it’s because of the measures we’ve taken,” Grego said Tuesday.

School leaders also did not want disruptions as students take their state exams, which many children are coming from home to take in person. Additionally, they said the extra time will allow all adults and many students who want to be vaccinated the chance to do so.

Health department officials have said they expect the Pfizer vaccine to be approved for use in children ages 12 to 15 years within a week.

Meanwhile, summer school is not mandatory, Grego noted, making it a timely opportunity to transition to voluntary masks. The state Department of Education made such a move possible by informing districts that the governor’s orders do not apply to school mask policies, most of which expire at the end of the academic year.

Related: DeSantis order ending local mask rules does not apply to schools

Other Tampa area school districts had similar plans in the works.

During their meeting Tuesday, Pasco County School Board members told parents that their mask requirement runs only through the end of May. Several board members have said they do not intend to renew their rule.

The Hillsborough County school district sent an email to parents Tuesday morning saying that its rule would stay in force through the end of classes, too.

News that the local requirements might soon end did not mollify some of the area’s mask opponents, who relied on DeSantis’ words that the time had come to end local restrictions.

One opponent to student masking burst into a Hillsborough County School Board retreat. Carrying a bright green sign that said, ‘Take the Masks OFF our kids,’ the woman did a quick lap around the conference table before a security officer took the sign away from her and then escorted her out the door. “It’s child abuse ... We do not need masks for our kids,” the woman said.

About a dozen Pasco County parents and activists came to speak against their district’s mask policies, which have endured some twists and turns along the way.

Invoking the governor’s speech, they demanded to know why the school district would get to make health decisions for their children, particularly when no emergency exists.

“Where were you allowed to be a dictatorship on our lives?” parent Stephanie Ramirez asked the board. “Where are we in society where you get to play God? I refuse to let it happen.”

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Some in the group threatened to sue the district over masks. Several declared their discontent with leadership, and said they would become more active in seeking change.

“No matter what else I agree with you on, I cannot and will not vote for any one of you,” parent Erin Pike told the board.

Even with their intention to make masks voluntary moving forward, school officials recognized that the health conditions might again change.

Grego said that if he learned anything during the pandemic, it was that it’s near impossible to make predictions of what the future might bring. Positivity and infection rates might be dropping now, he said, but as many children head off to break outside the schools, and masks are no longer required on campuses, no one knows how the virus might trend.

He urged the public to focus on how far everyone has come, and how successful the year has been compared to other places where schools never opened.

“We’ve worked hard,” Grego said, “to get our community through this.”

Times staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report.