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Pasco schools inch closer to mandatory masks

"We have to take a cautious route," deputy superintendent Ray Gadd says.

Pasco County students who want to return to classrooms in August most likely will have to wear masks to be allowed in.

School Board members on Tuesday indicated a strong preference for requiring facial coverings as a way to keep COVID-19 at bay while attempting to restart classes after months away because of the virus.

They took the lead from top administrators, who recommended the idea after reviewing several models to allow a resumption of face-to-face instruction, which many parents, students and teachers said they wanted. Social distancing could be enforced as possible, deputy superintendent Ray Gadd told the board, but with crowding and other concerns it has limited feasibility in schools.

“When we see the increased rates of COVID infections, we feel like we have to take a cautious route,” Gadd said. “The cautious path is that if infection rates are raging, we want to have the option of requiring masks.”

Board members had few qualms with the proposal — even with some of the potential problems that have been raised.

“It’s difficult to wear all day, I get it. I would just rather be safe than sorry,” chairwoman Colleen Beaudoin said, suggesting masks for elementary, middle and high schools.

The district recently required masks on adults in all its buildings, where adequate distances cannot be maintained.

Related: Pasco school district to require masks in all buildings for now

Beaudoin and others said they had heard from large numbers of parents who want masks mandated. They also received calls and letters from teachers, with the “vast majority” saying they preferred imposing a rule as a way to protect their health.

Board member Alison Crumbley said she worried that, without such direction, the district might lose students or teachers.

“This is the overwhelming message I am getting from them loud and clear,” Crumbley said.

The board stressed the need for clear mask guidelines and expectations, including details about what would happen to students who refuse to wear a mask compared to ones who have medical reasons for not putting one on. Members also said the district must be flexible, so the restrictions can be altered as the virus situation changes.

“If masks are deemed to be necessary, which right now they appear to be necessary, we do have the ability to say that,” board member Cynthia Armstrong said. “But I think we need to be very flexible on that.”

The board instructed the administration to come up with a legal, enforceable mask mandate for it to consider at a future meeting.

Gadd said that the entire reopening strategy remains fluid because the facts on the ground constantly shift. He expressed hope that having the mask discussion will help families decide which of three options they want to use for classes.

Related: Pasco’s school reopening plan: three options for parents

The district plans to send parents and staff a new document on Wednesday explaining in greater detail the choices, in advance of an extended July 8 response date.

The correspondence will explain more about issues such as how cafeteria meals will work, including a streamlined menu, and how bus rides will look.

It also offers insights into how the traditional classroom model will have the same curriculum and materials as the mySchool online, in case students need to move between them. Officials said they expect Advanced Placement and other special courses to be available in both options.

Pasco eSchool will operate on a different platform, allowing students more independence as they move through material.

Other new information includes details on mental health services available to tend to students’ social and emotional needs, as well as their academics. And it offers some idea of how added programs will be provided to students with special needs, generally on a case-by-case basis.

Staff will get even more specifics on issues ranging from cleaning schedules to school visitor rules, movement across campus to field trips and crisis drills.

Board member Megan Harding said all this should help families and staff, which in turn will assist the district as it prepares.

“There just wasn’t enough information for them to make a choice,” she said. “Now they will be able to sift through (the details) and decide.”

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