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Florida schools ponder mask mandates after state rule change

A roundup of Florida education news from around the state
People gather in front of the Pinellas County School Board building on Monday, Aug. 9, 2021, where several dozen people gathered for a rally to support the implementation of mask mandate for for all students, teachers, staff and visitors on school grounds and in school buses as the COVID-19 delta variant continues to drive record-breaking case counts in parts of the United States.
People gather in front of the Pinellas County School Board building on Monday, Aug. 9, 2021, where several dozen people gathered for a rally to support the implementation of mask mandate for for all students, teachers, staff and visitors on school grounds and in school buses as the COVID-19 delta variant continues to drive record-breaking case counts in parts of the United States. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Aug. 9, 2021|Updated Aug. 9, 2021

Students across the Tampa Bay region and Florida begin returning to classes this week. Their schools are still trying to figure out what to do about masks, an issue complicated by the State Board of Education setting new rules on Friday.

Some districts, including Hillsborough, Palm Beach and Duval, have chosen to require children to wear masks unless their parents submit an opt-out form — a move allowed by state officials who have promoted parental choice above all. Others are sticking with policies to “strongly recommend” masks but not add in a layer of paperwork.

The Pasco and Pinellas districts are headed down that path. Officials in each said adults on the campuses will wear masks and lead by example.

“But as long as opt out is a state requirement, then a recommendation from the Pasco district that you wear a mask is really no different than a requirement,” Pasco School Board chairman Allen Altman said.

The Pinellas School Board is holding a workshop at 1 p.m. today to review protocols that suggest a similar approach.

Pinellas County Schools superintendent Michael Grego discusses the district’s reopening plan with members of the Pinellas County School Board during a public Board Workshop on Monday, August 9, 2021, at the Pinellas County School Board offices in Largo.
Pinellas County Schools superintendent Michael Grego discusses the district’s reopening plan with members of the Pinellas County School Board during a public Board Workshop on Monday, August 9, 2021, at the Pinellas County School Board offices in Largo. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Board chairperson Carol Cook said the wording might be revamped to indicate members’ views on recommending masks. But she didn’t see the difference between a mandate with opt-out and a strongly encouraged optional policy, either.

“The end result is the same,” Cook said, adding she does not want to impose added paperwork on staff. “So why bother?”

Mask opponents and proponents began rallying outside the Pinellas board workshop at 11 a.m., in advance of the session.

What are you thinking about this subject and others as the first day of school comes? Share your views with the Times on this form.

Read on for more on this story and more Florida education news.

The State Board’s action said students should not face “harassment” over their parents’ choices related to COVID-19. It made vouchers available for children who find themselves at odds with their schools over the issue.

The Alachua County school district, one of the first to issue a mask mandate, agreed to the opt-out provision. Unlike others, it’s requiring a doctor’s note to qualify for the exemption, the Alachua Chronicle reports.

Parents of the youngest students have increasing concerns about school health protocols as the latest virus variant surges. Without a vaccine available, many worry about how in-person education can work safely, Florida Today reports. More from the Orlando Sentinel.

Some sued the state over masks. They contended the state’s rules discriminate against children with disabilities, the News Service of Florida reports.

Schools are responding as they can. Polk County schools scheduled virtual orientation sessions because of the concerns, the Ledger reports.

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Public schools are not the only ones facing this fast-moving debate. The Diocese of Venice changed its mask policy from voluntary to mandatory days before the start of classes, and faced an angry pushback from some parents, the Fort Myers News-Press reports.

Efforts include more than just masks. Lake County schools are among many implementing new air filtering and other approaches to keep the virus spread minimal, the Daily Commercial reports. More from the Bradenton Herald.

Vaccinations play a role. One Volusia County School Board member made comments about the shots that don’t jibe with public health officials’ statements. She now faces an ethics complaint over her remarks, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reports.

Universities have different options to promote their fight against COVID-19. Stetson University gave away two full scholarships in a lottery of students who got vaccinated, the Daily Commercial reports.

Quarantined at college because of the coronavirus? The State University System won’t guarantee students on-campus isolation housing because of the virus, the Tallahassee Democrat reports. The system is not requiring vaccinations, but is encouraging them, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

Remote learning dampened student activities. Students at Miami-Dade’s Krop Senior High found a way to keep clubs going as a motivational tool, the Miami Herald reports.

Schools want to keep staff motivated, too. They’ve used pre-planning time to focus on new approaches and ideas beyond the pandemic for the year, the Northwest Florida Daily News reports.

Palm Beach County will open two renovated schools this week. Officials are hoping the students will return after a hard pandemic year, the Palm Beach Post reports.

The Manatee County School Board has a new member. Chad Choate III fills the vacancy of Scott Hopes, who resigned to become county administrator, the Herald-Tribune reports.

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