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Hillsborough schools soften mask mandate

Medical forms are no longer required, effective Thursday.
Hillsborough School Board member Nadia Combs is seen on overhead screens during an emergency meeting Aug. 18, when the board imposed a strict mask mandate. On a motion from Combs at Tuesday's meeting, the board relaxed its masking rule, citing lower numbers of COVID-19 cases.
Hillsborough School Board member Nadia Combs is seen on overhead screens during an emergency meeting Aug. 18, when the board imposed a strict mask mandate. On a motion from Combs at Tuesday's meeting, the board relaxed its masking rule, citing lower numbers of COVID-19 cases. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Oct. 5
Updated Oct. 6

The Hillsborough County School Board voted 6-1 Tuesday to stop requiring a medical certificate if a student wants to opt out of the masking rule. By a 5-2 vote, the board decided parents will still be asked to fill out a paper or digital opt-out form.

Related: State Board of Education meeting ahead to discuss showdown with districts over masks

The change takes effect Thursday morning, giving school leaders and families 24 hours to adjust.

But even with the grace period, the change will happen before the State Board of Education meets on Thursday afternoon to discuss sanctions against districts that have gone against state directives in their rules on face coverings.

Hillsborough is among a dozen districts that defied state orders in designing a strict masking mandate in August, when COVID-19 case counts were skyrocketing.

Threatened with funding cuts and comfortable with a community positivity rate below 8 percent, the board on Tuesday deliberated whether to soften the masking order — and how far to go.

With exception of Jessica Vaughn, the members were willing to drop the requirement for a medical form.

“I have no problem going in front of the [state] board on Oct. 7 and backing the board’s decision,” said superintendent Addison Davis, allowing for the possibility that the Hillsborough board would continue its tough policy.

But, he said, the Alachua and Broward county school districts have already been informed of hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties. “I can tell you that where we are in our financial situation, we need every dollar and every cent that we can get,” he said.

Vaughn said she thought it was wrong to allow state leaders to “bully” the district into turning back on protections for children who cannot yet be vaccinated.

But board member Nadia Combs, who introduced the motion, said she never expected the masking order to last forever, and she is satisfied that the threat of COVID-19 has subsided.

From as many as 701 cases in a single day, Hillsborough is now seeing fewer than 100 a day. In the past seven days, there have been 295 cases.

Where the members had trouble reaching consensus was the issue of the parental opt-out form that existed before the board ordered a medical certificate.

Combs and Vaughn wanted to keep the form so teachers would know parents’ wishes for their younger children.

Board member Melissa Snively argued against the form, saying it was invasive to parents and burdensome for school employees who felt like “mask police.”

Davis, describing the early days of the district’s masking rule, said it was hard to enforce. Many parents simply did not fill out the forms, he said.

In the end, a separate motion to include the form passed 5-2, with board member Stacy Hahn joining Snively in dissent.

Attorney Jim Porter advised the board that, even with the parental form, the district will now be in full compliance with state directives, which leave the masking decision entirely up to parents.

In a statement, the district said it “will continue to follow mitigation strategies on campuses and in district facilities as recommended by the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), including the availability of hand sanitizer throughout our buildings, encouraging hand washing throughout the day, making face coverings available for use, and working with our health partners to provide opportunities for vaccination clinics.”