Hillsborough School Board extends 30-day mask mandate

For another month, students will need a medical certificate to opt out.
The Hillsborough School Board voted 5-1 Thursday to extend its mask mandate another 30 days, to Oct. 15.
The Hillsborough School Board voted 5-1 Thursday to extend its mask mandate another 30 days, to Oct. 15. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Sept. 9, 2021|Updated Sept. 10, 2021

Hillsborough County’s strict school masking rule will continue through Oct.15, the School Board decided Thursday, encouraged by falling COVID-19 case counts in the schools.

“The bottom line, and we’ve said this before, is we want our kids in school,” said board chairperson Lynn Gray, who made the motion that was seconded by member Jessica Vaughn.

The vote was 5-1, with board member Melissa Snively absent and member Stacy Hahn dissenting out of deference to parental choice. Hahn also questioned the claims by staff and other board members that the masking rule, which requires a medical certificate for families who opt out, is responsible for a drop in cases over the last two weeks.

Hillsborough’s rule, which is being challenged in court along with others around the state, took effect on Aug. 19. In the weeks that followed, the percentage of students affected by quarantines dropped from 4.48 to 2.33.

The drop in quarantines was predictable, some board members noted, because wearing a mask can help a student be excused from quarantine after exposure to the virus.

What’s harder to prove is whether the masks have caused actual transmission to decrease from a peak of 601 student cases on Aug. 23 to 277 cases on Wednesday.

Some board members suggested case counts are falling, in part, because infections are decreasing in the community at large. It is also hard to compare this week’s numbers to the previous week’s because the Labor Day holiday closed schools on Monday, delaying many reports.

Superintendent Addison Davis spoke in favor of masking. “The data is clear that there has been a change” since the tougher rule took effect, he said.

But he did not go as far as to recommend extending the existing rule which, according to lawyers for the state, goes against an executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis and guidelines from the state health department. While enthusiastic about keeping children in school, Davis said he did not want to challenge state directives or the Parents‘ Bill of Rights, a new law that is central to the state’s legal argument.

The case counts, while falling, are still far beyond last year’s. At last count, Hillsborough reported 8,381 cases in the current school year.

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