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Hillsborough schools tell state: We had every right to order masks

The district pushes back against education commissioner Richard Corcoran, who continues to threaten consequences.
Zachariah Lewis wears a fashionable masks with the Louis Vuitton logo on the first day of classes at Hillsborough High last year. In 2021, the Hillsborough County School District started the year without a strong mask mandate but later required face coverings after COVID-19 cases began to multiply.
Zachariah Lewis wears a fashionable masks with the Louis Vuitton logo on the first day of classes at Hillsborough High last year. In 2021, the Hillsborough County School District started the year without a strong mask mandate but later required face coverings after COVID-19 cases began to multiply. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Sep. 1

Hillsborough County School District leaders say emergency conditions in the schools gave them the legal right to impose a strict masking rule on Aug. 18.

They also reject the notion that, in requiring medical documentation before a student can opt out of wearing a mask, they have violated the state’s new Parents’ Bill of Rights law.

To the contrary, Hillsborough is following the law’s intent, the district said in a letter Wednesday to state education commissioner Richard Corcoran. The letter noted that the law allows school boards to take action that is “reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest.”

District spokeswoman Tanya Arja said that “the facial covering requirement appears to be working as the number of students and staff in isolation and quarantine and the number of reported COVID-19 cases in our schools have gone down since the requirement was put in place.”

But the rule, which remains in effect for 30 days, led Corcoran last Friday to send letters to Hillsborough and other districts with similar policies, accusing them of overreach and threatening financial sanctions.

In a three-page response signed by superintendent Addison Davis and School Board chairperson Lynn Gray, Hillsborough denied it is overstepping its authority.

Even though guidelines from the state Department of Health say parents can opt to have their children exempted from masking, Hillsborough says those guidelines do not prohibit them from requiring a medical certificate. The Florida Constitution, the letter argues, gives local school boards that discretion.

The district says that, based on an oral ruling Friday from Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper, Corcoran does not have a legal right to threaten sanctions.

Related: Judge rules for parents in Florida school mask case, a blow to DeSantis

At the heart of Hillsborough’s argument is the widespread illness that occurred during the first week of school. Eight days into the new semester, 10,384 students and 338 employees were in isolation or quarantine. The seven-day average positivity rate for the county was 21.73 percent on Aug. 14, compared to 8.65 percent one year earlier.

It was that emergency that led to the Aug. 18 School Board meeting, where medical authorities confirmed that masking and vaccines were the most effective tools for containing the virus. The district is also arguing, as it has before, that the face covering rule is consistent with the district’s 2020 reopening plan, which was approved by the state.

Similar arguments are being made in counties around the state, including Broward and Alachua, which already have seen the start of state sanctions for imposing mask mandates.

The other seven districts — Leon, Sarasota, Orange, Palm Beach, Indian River, Duval and Miami-Dade — had not sent response letters yet, the Department of Education said. Three more districts — Volusia, Lee and Brevard — have school masking rules, but have not yet received warning letters.