Less than 24 hours before classes begin, the Hillsborough County School Board will meet Monday to discuss the highly divisive issue of masks.
No agenda had been posted at the end of the business day on Friday, and no description of the agenda was included in the announcement the school district sent out.
The notice simply said the board will discuss recent actions by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Department of Health, and will allow members of the public one hour to speak.
The 10 a.m. meeting gives superintendent Addison Davis the weekend to contemplate the district’s reopening plan, which has come under attack amid the rapid spread of new strains of COVID-19.
Early in the afternoon, Davis told reporters, “We will strongly recommend masks in Hillsborough County Public Schools, and make it optional.”
The Pinellas County School Board, similarly, has called a special workshop for 1 p.m. on Monday to also discuss the state’s actions. Unlike the Hillsborough gathering, the workshop format does not allow for public comment or a formal vote.
“I look forward to the conversation,” said Pinellas board member Caprice Edmond.
On both sides of the bay, some board members and constituents have been clamoring for special meetings before school begins Tuesday in Hillsborough and Wednesday in Pinellas. In Pinellas, an online petition calling for a board meeting to discuss masking drew more than 1,000 signatures.
“They’re playing politics with the health of our kids,” said Brad Rosenheim, the parent of two students at Midtown Academy in St. Petersburg. “My kids wear their masks to keep them and the people around them safe. It’s common sense, just like we don’t let people smoke cigarettes at school because it can harm others.”
Both districts, like others around the state, are responding to a flurry of recent state directives that followed DeSantis’ July 30 order banning school masking mandates.
In a morning conference call, the State Board of Education approved two new rules. The first says that, during a quarantine, students cannot be counted as present unless they have access to assignments, materials and instructors. The second allows a student to seek a state scholarship to a private school if he or she feels harassed in any way by COVID-19 protocols, including steps some have suggested to separate out those students who are not wearing masks.
Another set of instructions, posted by the state Department of Health, was similar to the education board’s rules, but with a key distinction in its wording. The health department directive said: “Students may wear masks or facial coverings as a mitigation measure; however, the school must allow for a parent or legal guardian of the student to opt-out the student from wearing a face covering or mask.”
Davis acknowledged the opt-out possibility when he spoke to reporters on Friday.
“But we have only a few days in front of us for school,” Davis said. “Openly, whether you implement that strategy versus making them strongly recommended and making them optional, the outcome becomes the same.”
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Other complications could also arise, he said. “What if we mandate it, and a child doesn’t wear it?”
Davis said the board members are divided on how to proceed. He seemed to favor keeping the status quo.
“We open on Tuesday,” he said. “We’ve got to stay consistent in our approach. We’ve got to continue to make certain that our families have a clear understanding of the direction in which we’re going.” He then qualified that statement by repeating, “this is going to be a fluid process.”
Hillsborough finds itself unusual among the state’s 67 districts in that it is on a financial recovery plan, which education commissioner Richard Corcoran ordered in April. If Hillsborough allows its main reserve account to drop below the state requirement of 2 percent, the state can then assume control of the district’s finances. As DeSantis threatened to withhold funding to districts that defy his order about masking, Hillsborough leaders are especially protective of their financial position.
They are also aware that, if students seek out the private school scholarships because they feel harassed over masks, the district will lose even more money.
Anticipating that many families will be leery of sending their children to school buildings, the district is reopening enrollment for Hillsborough Virtual K-12, the online school that grew more than tenfold during the pandemic. Families can apply between Saturday at 7 a.m. and Monday at 11:59 p.m. at this link: www.bitly.com/HVK12APPLY.