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Pinellas schools decide to keep masks optional

A lengthy School Board discussion did not change the administration’s position, which is to recommend but not require face coverings when classes start Wednesday.
From left, Kelly Rouse, Atticus Westmoreland, 8, and Zohayra Westmoreland, 10, all of St. Petersburg, stand outside Pinellas County School Board headquarters Monday as several dozen people gathered for a rally to support a mask mandate in the district's schools. School officials opted to strongly recommend masks instead.
From left, Kelly Rouse, Atticus Westmoreland, 8, and Zohayra Westmoreland, 10, all of St. Petersburg, stand outside Pinellas County School Board headquarters Monday as several dozen people gathered for a rally to support a mask mandate in the district's schools. School officials opted to strongly recommend masks instead. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Aug. 9
Updated Aug. 11

LARGO — Masks will continue to be strongly recommended when the Pinellas County Public Schools reopen Wednesday.

But there will be no requirement to wear them, and no parental opt-out system like the one that will be used in Hillsborough County and handful of other Florida school districts.

School Board members in Pinellas spent several hours discussing the issue at a workshop Monday. While there are no votes at workshops, three of the seven members stated positions in favor of either requiring masks with a parent opt-out system or opposing Gov. Ron DeSantis altogether and making masks mandatory.

But Caprice Edmond, the member who suggested defying the governor, backed down near the end of the meeting when the group tried to reach a consensus. “I guess you have to read the room,” she said in an interview.

Pinellas County School Board members Laura Hine, right, and Caprice Edmond, left, listen as associate superintendent Kevin Hendrick speaks during a board workshop Monday.
Pinellas County School Board members Laura Hine, right, and Caprice Edmond, left, listen as associate superintendent Kevin Hendrick speaks during a board workshop Monday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The two members who called for a mask mandate with an opt-out, Laura Hine and Nicole Carr, said such a system could sway many parents who are not firmly decided on the issue.

Carr compared it to the shopper who walks into a store, learns that masks are required and puts one on without argument.

“To not require it really is a lazy way of doing it,” Carr said.

Hine said that even with the opt-out provision that is allowed in guidelines from the Florida Department of Health, the district might see 90 percent compliance.

Firmly against the mandate were board members Bill Dudley and Lisa Cane. Chairperson Carol Cook and vice chairperson Eileen Long also opposed any kind of mandate. Long said it would do little good if, outside school, families are gathering in large numbers without masks.

The final decision fell to superintendent Mike Grego, who said there is little to no difference between recommending masks and requiring them with an opt-out. He did not want parents to have to fill out an opt-out forms, saying the paperwork would “drive teachers crazy.”

He said he also wanted the schools to open in a spirit of respect for all students, in keeping with a state edict against discriminating or ostracizing anyone who chooses not to wear a mask. Other officials said they did not want teachers to become “mask police.”

Grego and his lieutenants spent the first 90 minutes of the workshop going over state directives and the district’s reopening plan in detail, taking technical questions about quarantine instruction, attendance and other COVID-19 related issues.

“I can say to you, very confidently, we are ready to open up schools on Wednesday,” Grego said. “If we can just hang together and do this work together and stay together, I think we’re going to win this thing.”

At Edmond’s insistence, Grego committed to keeping a close eye on the coronavirus data and pivoting, if necessary, after school gets under way.

The masking question has divided school leadership around the state, as those who go against DeSantis’ orders face funding cuts as a consequence. In Pinellas, the state could withhold more than $300 million, board members were told Monday.

Related: Hillsborough schools reverse course: Masks required, with opt-out option

In Hillsborough, superintendent Addison Davis was leaning toward an optional masking policy until members of that School Board pressured him to employ the parent opt-out system. He announced that change on Saturday.

Dr. Mona Mangat, a board certified allergist and immunologist, of St. Petersburg, speaks 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 a mask mandate in public schools.
Dr. Mona Mangat, a board certified allergist and immunologist, of St. Petersburg, speaks 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 a mask mandate in public schools. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Monday’s workshop in Pinellas followed a demonstration outside school district headquarters that included Rev. Andy Oliver of the Allendale United Methodist Church; his son, Liam Oliver, a seventh-grader at Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School; and Michele Rayner-Goolsby, a state lawmaker and candidate for U.S. Congress.

Rev. Oliver and others vowed to vote out the School Board members if they did not do more to protect children from the virus.

Dr. Mona Mangat, an allergist and immunologist with three children, said, “we’re asking the Pinellas County School Board to put science at the forefront of their decisions.”

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