Hernando schools mandate student masks, allow parents to opt out

Starting Wednesday, staff, vendors and visitors also will have to wear masks, with limited exceptions.
Hernando County school superintendent John Stratton says he will begin implementing the school district's new mask mandate the week of Sept. 6, 2021.
Hernando County school superintendent John Stratton says he will begin implementing the school district's new mask mandate the week of Sept. 6, 2021.
Published Sept. 1, 2021|Updated Sept. 1, 2021

Concerned about rising coronavirus cases and quarantines in their schools, the Hernando County School Board on Tuesday held a special meeting to discuss the possibility of stricter mask rules.

The board ended up making slight adjustments, moving from a rule that “strongly recommends” face coverings for students to one that requires them but allows for parents to submit an opt-out form. The rule takes effect Wednesday, giving parents time to turn in the form if they wish.

After the board tweaked its policy for students, superintendent John Stratton said he could not mandate children to wear masks without having adults do the same. He asked the board to approve a mask requirement for all staff, vendors and visitors, with limited exceptions based on the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Board members agreed to that change as well. They said they would review the results of the new rules on Oct. 12.

Board member Jimmy Lodato, who advocated for keeping the district’s existing mask-optional policy intact, questioned why a change would be needed. Chairperson Linda Prescott said the switch would allow parents to have choices, in line with state law, and also allow the district to see whether opposition to masks outweighs support, as appeared to be the case among the speakers who came before the board on Tuesday.

That information, she said, could help inform future decisions the board might face in dealing with masks.

Lodato made a motion to change nothing, but it failed, with board member Gus Guadagnino the only other “yes” vote.

Guadagnino said he struggled with the idea of asking for an opt-out form, without knowing what would happen if a child shows up without a mask and without a form. Stratton said he had no intention of making staff act as the “mask police,” prompting Guadagnino to oppose the mandate, along with Lodato, based on a lack of implementation procedures.

Prescott, along with board members Kay Hatch and Susan Duval, favored tougher mask requirements to deal with what Hatch deemed a public health crisis. They also recognized the vocal opposition to adopting a rule with only a doctor’s note as an exception, though, and said they wanted to be inclusive in their action.

“So I think the opt out is a good thing,” Prescott said.

Board members left open the possibility they could create an even stricter policy when they revisit the issue in October.

They acted after listening to dozens of parents, students and community members who were near unanimous in their animosity toward a mask mandate. They offered several arguments, including that they do not co-parent with government, students don’t wear masks properly so they are ineffective, and they have the freedom as U.S. citizens to make decisions for themselves.

Most applauded after the board agreed to include a parental opt-out in the policy.

(Editor’s note: A previous version of this story gave another effective date for the Hernando schools mask mandate. The school district changed the original date.)

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