In a last-minute change prompted by public pressure, Hillsborough County school superintendent Addison Davis announced Saturday that students will be required to wear face coverings in the public schools — unless their parents notify the school that they are opting out.
This new arrangement is similar to those adopted by some other Florida districts, and it is supported by guidelines that were issued Friday by the Florida Department of Health. It will be in effect in Hillsborough at least until Sept. 3.
Monday’s emergency School Board meeting, which had been announced Friday to discuss the masking issue, will now be cancelled.
School begins Tuesday in Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties, and Wednesday in Pinellas. Late Friday, Pinellas scheduled its own last-minute School Board session for 1 p.m. Monday. But that meeting will be a workshop, which means there will be no public comment and no votes can be taken. Customarily, there is also no video livestream that would enable the public to see the workshop.
The week’s events have been chaotic on both sides of the bay.
In Hillsborough, there was public and board member pressure to switch to the opt-out system after the Department of Health rules came out on Friday. Davis, however, told reporters in a midday news conference that he wanted to be consistent and argued that the opt-out system was not significantly different from voluntary masking.
Later in the day the district scheduled Monday’s emergency board meeting. But by early Saturday, Davis had decided to pivot.
“While the outcome may be the same,” Davis said in a prepared announcement Saturday, “we believe this decision continues to illustrate that Hillsborough County Public Schools takes public safety seriously. We want to ensure we are doing all we can to help community-wide efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”
In Pinellas, the district scheduled Monday’s workshop without disclosing what it was about. The notice posted on the website said the workshop was “to discuss topics of interest.”
Board members, however, received voluminous emails about the state directives on COVID-19 and masking, and what those rules might mean for the district and its schools.
“I don’t think there is anything meant to be deceitful,” board chairperson Carol Cook said on Saturday. “I don’t think we’re trying to hide anything.”
Although there was pressure from constituents to have a board meeting last week, Cook said she did not think it made sense to meet until after the state departments of health and education issued their rules.
She also questioned the wisdom of an opt-out arrangement on masks. “If we are strongly suggesting encouraging masking, I don’t see how that is any different than mandating with an opt-out,” she said.
Parents in Hillsborough will receive the opt-out form in an email. Should they choose to exercise this option, they must complete a form for each child.
“Families will be expected to have conversations with their children so that students will follow through with their parents’ expectations regarding masks while at school,” Davis added.
Uncertainty still exists about staff, as the new rules pertain only to students. Hillsborough teachers union president Rob Kriete said he believes most employees will welcome a mask protocol, although he is unsure how many will approve of parents’ ability to opt out.
But, while the district and union say they highly recommend masking for employees, a requirement is something the union would have to discuss with its members. “It could be possible open to conversation,” Kriete said
Cook in Pinellas said she believes most, if not all, principals will wear masks, as that is what superintendent Mike Grego is strongly recommending. It is unclear how many teachers will wear masks.
The fast-changing posture on masking is reminiscent of last year’s uncertainty about what date to reopen the schools. Davis and the Hillsborough board members went back and forth on opening dates, largely because COVID-19 case counts were changing erratically.
Parents, however, reacted angrily when they could not make plans for their families, and their resentment lasted well into the fall election campaigns.