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Early COVID counts push Hillsborough schools to consider stronger mask rules

An emergency meeting Wednesday will also allow School Board members to discuss the state of COVID-19 in the schools.
Hillsborough County School Board chairperson Lynn Gray said a special meeting of the board is set for Wednesday to discuss how to handle high numbers of COVID-19 cases among students and district staff.
Hillsborough County School Board chairperson Lynn Gray said a special meeting of the board is set for Wednesday to discuss how to handle high numbers of COVID-19 cases among students and district staff. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Aug. 16
Updated Aug. 17

With alarming numbers of COVID-19 cases reported in Hillsborough County public schools during the first week of classes, the School Board will hold a special meeting Wednesday to discuss additional protections against the virus.

“We’re at that place. It’s unavoidable,” board chairperson Lynn Gray said Monday. Hillsborough’s case count stood at 731 at midday, nearly 20 times higher than it was after the first week of fall classes in 2020.

As of 7 a.m., the district said 5,599 students and 316 employees were either in isolation, having tested positive for COVID-19, or in quarantine, which means they had close contact with a positive case.

Related: COVID case counts far ahead of last year in Tampa Bay schools

At Wednesday’s 1 p.m. meeting, superintendent Addison Davis will “update us on COVID realities in our school district,” Gray said. “And there will be a board discussion on whether to mandate masks” beyond the current level, which allows parents and staff to opt out of wearing the face coverings.

She said board members must weigh the financial risk in light of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ threats to withhold funding from districts that defy an executive order that forbids full masking mandates. They also will consider the merits of joining other large districts in a united front against the limits that DeSantis set.

“The most important thing is the welfare of our children getting this virus,” Gray said. “That’s my major concern, and that’s it.”

Miami-Dade, the state’s largest school system, on Monday joined other large districts including Broward in pushing back against the governor. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said he would require masks when classes in his district start on Aug. 23. Students could opt out, but only for medical reasons.

His decision came after hearing nearly two hours of advice from medical experts at the University of Miami, Florida International University, Jackson Health and other local organizations. They were unanimous in their support of a full mask mandate without any opting out, except for certain health conditions.

”There should be no gray area. If a child cannot wear a mask in school, then a child should stay home,” said Dr. Lisa Gwynn, an associate professor of clinical pediatrics and public health sciences at the University of Miami and chairperson of the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

She and others noted the county’s rising positive cases and hospitalizations because of COVID-19, and said the county should not wait to see if it has numbers as high as those impacting Hillsborough County schools.

Carvalho said the message came through clearly from his advisors. Regardless of consequences from the state, he said, “these are the protocols we will fashion into directives.”

Earlier in the day, the Manatee County School Board, in its own emergency meeting, debated the same issue and wound up where masking is now in Hillsborough: mandatory, unless a parent asks to have their child opt out.

Supporters of the opt-out system say a large number of parents who are undecided will put masks on their children out of deference to school rules.

Other local school districts had no immediate plans to change their direction on masks. Both Pinellas and Pasco counties are mask-optional, and do not require opt out forms.

Not everyone in Pinellas district leadership is on board with that arrangement.

Pinellas School Board member Laura Hine said she has asked repeatedly for an emergency meeting to establish a mask mandate with an opt-out clause, but has been rejected.

“Apparently my colleagues don’t agree that we’re having a public health emergency,” Hine said in an interview. “What we need right now is a mask policy. If we want to keep kids in school, we should be requiring masks.”

In Pasco, superintendent Kurt Browning was disappointed in what he called “sporadic” use of masks and recorded a new public message that strongly encourages students and staff to wear face coverings in schools. After four days, the district reported 145 student cases resulting in 148 quarantines, and 46 employee cases leading to two quarantines.

“Those of you who have been wearing a mask, thank you,” Browning said. “However, people have been far too relaxed and the result is more and more cases affecting our schools.”

Browning’s message came too late for a Dawn Slagter, a parent who is moving her ninth-grade daughter from Wiregrass Ranch High to virtual school.

“On the first day of school it was 15 percent (wearing masks), from what I saw,” Slagter said. ”I asked my daughter and she said it was maybe 20 percent.” That number dropped to about 5 percent by Friday, she said, and teachers were not wearing masks either.

Slagter’s daughter has asthma and spent last year in MySchool Online, a form of virtual instruction attached to the school.

Such programs are no longer funded this year, however.

“She cried and I cried with her,” said Slagter, who is urging the district to bring back the school-based virtual program. “Our experience with MySchool Online was very good,” she said. “Her teachers were phenomenal.”

Leon County school district officials, who kicked off the issue by defying the governor only to back down a day later, said they did not expect another switch at this point. However, district spokesman Chris Petley said, superintendent Rocky Hanna had conversations with lawyers about possible next steps on Friday.

In related matters, lawyers representing the Governor’s Office and the Department of Education on Monday submitted a 37-page briefing plus addendums explaining why they believe Leon County Judge John Cooper should dismiss a parent-led lawsuit challenging the state’s rules on school mask mandates.

Among their arguments, the attorneys contended that the parents, including families from Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, do not have standing to bring the case. School districts should be making any arguments that the state has usurped local authority, they said.

”No school district has raised such a suit because the law is clear that the Florida Constitution delineates a hierarchical structure between the State Board of Education and the local school districts, and the Executive Order and Rule appropriately leverage the constitutional supervisory authority granted to the State Board of Education,” they wrote.

They further stated that the questions being asked of the court are political in nature, and therefore beyond the court’s purview, similar to last year’s lawsuit aiming to stop schools from reopening during the pandemic.

Cooper has scheduled a hearing to determine whether the case should proceed for Thursday afternoon.

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