Parents are divided, still, on masks in the schools

With COVID-19 cases surging, some advocate protective measures while others consider the masking rules intrusive.
Kelly Carling, a Hillsborough school parent, holds out her son's used mask to show how dirty they become. Carling spoke at the Hillsborough County School Board meeting on July 27, 2021.
Kelly Carling, a Hillsborough school parent, holds out her son's used mask to show how dirty they become. Carling spoke at the Hillsborough County School Board meeting on July 27, 2021. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times staff ]
Published Jul. 28, 2021|Updated Jul. 28, 2021

Parents turned out to their Tampa Bay area school board meetings Tuesday, some accompanied by children and at least one carrying a child, to weigh in on the highly charged issue of masks in the schools.

In Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough, they were divided on whether the current surge in the coronavirus delta variant warrants strict measures, or if masking mandates are an intrusion on parental choice.

Some, encouraged by recent recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics, urged local administrators to reimpose the rules that were in place in 2020-21.

“How can this school district operate in defiance of simple, commonsense safety precautions?” asked Hillsborough speaker Jennifer Burton.

Others, citing their own sources of information, talked of masks breeding bacteria, of oxygen deprivation and psychological harm.

Or they said masks do not work. Using a cloth mask to stop COVID-19 is “like a mosquito going through a chain-link fence,” said speaker Ronnie Psimas.

In Pinellas and Hillsborough, some parents said they would pull their children out of the public schools, or campaign against sitting school board members, if masks became mandatory again.

“I’m not going to quote science,” said Hillsborough parent Megan Collins. “Because let’s be honest. There’s so many variations and opinions circulating about science these days.” She said she was opposed to mandatory masking because, she said, “children’s mental health is just as important as physical health.”

So many signed up to speak in Hillsborough that they were given just a minute each, with the sound cut off sometimes in mid-sentence.

In Pinellas, resident David Happe, who has attended several School Board meetings to denounce mask mandates, aimed to remind district officials Tuesday that the community is watching.

Happe said he had received input from a couple of the county’s “patriot groups” that “if you attempt to mask our kids ... they will call for massive student-parent unenrollment” from district schools.

Several other parents and grandparents made similar comments about their willingness to home school their children, or attempt to create alternative education models, if masks return as a requirement.

Some teachers and others, meanwhile, encouraged Pinellas board members to go the other way. They thanked the district for keeping them safe with masks, social distancing and other protocols last year, and asked for those to continue.

“Thank you for the leadership you provided last school year,” teacher Nick Wright said. “I wore my mask all year. ... I implore you to once again provide that great leadership. ... Help us to stay safe by mandating the use of masks in our classrooms.”

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Area school districts had already decided to end mandatory masking when Gov. Ron DeSantis announced last week that he will fight any attempt by the federal government or local school districts to mandate masking. While he has not taken any official action, he has discussed the possibility of a special legislative session if necessary.

Related: DeSantis looks to ban mask mandates if schools, feds require them

Critics of DeSantis have questioned whether he can ban or overrule a local school district decision. But, in recent months, Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran has imposed his will on the Hillsborough district repeatedly and, threatened with a loss of funding, the board and superintendent have fallen in line.

On Tuesday, Davis emphasized other protocols that Hillsborough schools will employ in response to the continuing pandemic when classes begin Aug. 10.

The district will maintain its website’s COVID-19 dashboard, he said. Contact tracing and quarantines will continue, in a modified fashion. Gloves, masks, hand sanitizer and wipes will be widely available.

But he said that masks, while encouraged and available, will be voluntary. When asked how closely he was following the advice of local health care leaders including Tampa General Hospital, Davis said, “TGH does strongly recommend that individuals who are not vaccinated wear a mask indoors.” But “from our side of it, it’s a choice. It’s a choice for the parents.”

Davis said the district is finalizing a detailed school reopening plan that it hopes to release to the public later in the week.

Staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.