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Pasco schools stick with voluntary masks despite growing calls for action

Some parents demanded a mandate, while others thanked the district for respecting their choice.
Pasco County parent Kimberly Cox was among several parents who urged the School Board on Tuesday to implement a mask mandate. The board took no action on the topic.
Pasco County parent Kimberly Cox was among several parents who urged the School Board on Tuesday to implement a mask mandate. The board took no action on the topic. [ JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times ]
Published Sep. 7

After watching thirteen school districts around Florida adopt strict mask requirements — despite the possibility of state sanctions — a growing number of Pasco County parents have wanted to know if their School Board would do the same.

Several came to the board’s meeting Tuesday in Land O’Lakes to urge action. They got none, as the board listened to pleas but did not discuss the subject of masks beyond receiving their lawyer’s report about the current status of mask rules and lawsuits across the state.

Related: Coronavirus in Tampa Bay schools: a weekly update

Superintendent Kurt Browning, who has called for increased mask usage, said he was reluctant to recommend a change in district’s mask-optional policy.

“We’re doing what our charge is to do, and that is to educate kids,” he said. “That is in spite of COVID.”

Pasco is not the only Tampa Bay area district to keep masks off its agenda after a Leon County circuit judge ruled recently that state efforts to ban universal mask mandates are unlawful. The Pinellas County School Board also has remained mum on the topic amid pressure to reconsider its voluntary mask policy.

By comparison, the Hillsborough County School Board has stepped up its fight with the state, defending its blanket mask mandate as legal. And the Hernando County board held a lengthy meeting before choosing to implement a mask requirement with a parent opt-out provision.

To make their point in Pasco, about a dozen parents paraded their cars through the school district parking lot Tuesday, honking and waving pro-mask signs, while another dozen spoke out during the School Board’s public comment period.

Alicia Zilay, who has led a social media advocacy effort for masks, delivered a petition she said contained 2,000 signatures.

Related: Florida’s school mask debate enters another week, with more challenges afoot

“This is your decision, and this an emergency,” she said, noting that 10 percent of Hudson High School students tested positive for the coronavirus in the first 18 days of classes.

Mask proponents were not alone in their efforts, though. An equally ardent group of parents who oppose a mask mandate encouraged the board and Browning to stick with a mask-optional policy.

“Thank you for continuing to respect peoples’ choices,” parent Krysia Bailey told the board, saying she moved to Florida from Maine because “Florida is so free.”

Joseph King, who said he has two children in the district, argued the negative effects of masks outweigh the positives. Saying he has seen children struggle with depression during the pandemic, King said each parent is responsible for their own children but not for others.

“My body, my choice,” he said, asserting that it’s an American right to not have others tell you what to do.

That perspective rankled some in the audience.

Parent Mark Biondolino lamented that the terms “freedom” and “choice” had become overly politicized in Florida’s mask debate.

“Those words are being thrown around recklessly,” Biondolino said. “We have to understand those rights aren’t unlimited.”

He mentioned other instances where government has stepped in to impose restrictions, such as the use of seat belts, and suggested the mask issue could fall under a public health need.

“All we are asking is for you to put a covering over their mouths. It’s not that difficult,” parent Kimberly Cox said, raising concerns that her child could become infected at school and bring illness into her home.

The interactions weren’t always friendly. Some parents heckled one another, adding insults into the mix, eventually leading to a shouting match that prompted board chairman Allen Altman to threaten to end public comments.

Things calmed down, but some of the later speakers declined to put their address into the record, saying they didn’t want people to show up at their homes to oppose their views.

The chaos picked up again in the parking lot after the meeting ended, with sheriff’s deputies telling at least one parent to leave after she told others, “I know where you live.”

The board did not have masks on its agenda, and members did not request any changes. Some urged members of the public to refocus on supporting the schools as they work to educate children, rather than criticizing school employees and their efforts.

Still, the desire to hear the board weigh the issues remained.

Susan Quinn, who said she has children attending Wiregrass Ranch High, expressed frustration that the district has not debated masks again as quarantine numbers rise and, at least anecdotally, many in schools go mask-free.

Change the way you encourage mask use, she said. Adopt a mandate with an opt-out clause.

“But do something,” Quinn said, “before it’s too late.”

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