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Masks: It’s what Floridians are talking about, and things are tense

In Hillsborough County, two School Board members spar over how to describe the district’s position on the issue.
Students donning masks line up on the first day of school at Hillsborough High last August. As of this week, the Hillsborough County school district is planning to start the 2021-22 school without a mask mandate.
Students donning masks line up on the first day of school at Hillsborough High last August. As of this week, the Hillsborough County school district is planning to start the 2021-22 school without a mask mandate. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Jul. 31
Updated Aug. 11

As the coronavirus delta variant spreads and the start of school draws near, one topic — masks —has taken on a life of its own.

And it’s starting to test people’s nerves.

Hillsborough County School Board members have been inundated with emails from parents who want them to pressure superintendent Addison Davis to reconsider his position on the subject. Like most Florida superintendents, he’s decided that masks will be optional when schools reopen to students on Aug. 10, despite the alarming rise in variant cases.

The tide of emails grew so strong that board chairperson Lynn Gray considered calling an emergency meeting next week to discuss a possible change in course, which alarmed a different group of constituents: anti-mask parents.

No special meeting was called. But some in the pro-mask camp were troubled when Gray responded to people with emails that said in part: “The board is unanimous in backing superintendent Davis’s decision to make masks optional for the start of the school year.”

Not true, said Jessica Vaughn, a first-year board member who has clashed with Gray in the past. She wasted no time before she appeared on a Facebook livestream Friday to set the record straight.

“I am not in support of (Davis’s) stance,” Vaughn said in the three-minute video. “I’m pretty sure that I’ve made that clear. I’ve gone on record that I am very concerned about our students who are unvaccinated and protecting them. I think we need masks, absolutely.”

Vaughn suggested Friday, and previously at Tuesday’s board meeting, that elementary schools consider “masking cohorts.” Under that scenario, families who want their children to wear masks could can elect to have their children grouped together. So far, there is no indication her suggestion will be followed.

The issue of masks is somewhat murky when it comes to Florida’s public schools. Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday issued an executive order squarely aimed at preventing mask mandates in schools and threatening to withhold state funding from “noncompliant school boards.”

Two Florida districts, Broward and Gadsden counties, had already approved mask mandates. It was unclear Friday how they would respond to the governor’s new order or whether other districts would join them in requiring masks.

Meanwhile, the state reported more than 110,000 new coronavirus infections for the last week, making Florida the national epicenter of another coronavirus wave, this time driven by the highly contagious delta variant.

In an interview, Gray conceded that it might have been better if she had described the Hillsborough School Board as having achieved a “consensus” on the issue of masks, not unanimity.

As for the big picture, she used another word in her email to the constituents. The masking situation, she said, is “fluid.”