Confronted with rising numbers of COVID-19 cases on its campuses, the Hillsborough County School Board voted Wednesday to require that students, teachers and staff wear masks for the next 30 days, starting Thursday.
Students can opt out, but only for medical reasons.
The 5-2 vote appeared to flout Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recent order aimed at preventing mask mandates in schools. It also risks consequences from the state Department of Education and the State Board of Education, which have threatened action against districts that don’t comply, including removal of school board members.
Minutes before Hillsborough’s decision, the Miami-Dade School Board voted 7-1 to approve a similar measure, a development that suddenly aligned Florida’s three largest districts against its top political leaders on the issue of masks in schools. Broward County schools, the state’s second-largest district, approved a full mask requirement with an opt-out provision for medical reasons earlier this month.
Before its vote, the Hillsborough board heard often-emotional testimony from residents on both sides of the mask issue. They came to the lectern with one-minute statements and starkly differing views on the dangers posed by the coronavirus, the role of individuals in a pandemic, the science of the virus and the utility of masks.
Many parents and health professionals pointed to rising case numbers in Tampa Bay area schools and the COVID-positive children who are showing up with increasing frequency in area emergency rooms.
“Hospitals are full and there are not enough beds for our patients,” said Dr. Bhumi Kumar, a Tampa physician.
Scott Paine, a former member of the Tampa City Council who is now a grandfather, urged the board to “do what needs to be done. Take it on. We sometimes have to go against unjust acts of authority for the sake of our children.”
Others insisted that mask requirements were an assault on freedom and a heavy burden for children, with emotional, social and physical effects that outweighed any harm the virus might pose.
“It is not your job to step in like Big Brother and protect us,” said one speaker, Michelle Fava.
Dina Georgoulis told the board, “This is tyranny. And we will not stand for it. We will vote you out.”
In the end, a board majority voted in favor of a motion by member Nadia Combs to reinstate the district’s mask requirement from last school year for the next 30 days, with the provision to opt out for medical reasons.
Joining Combs were board members Lynn Gray, Karen Perez, Jessica Vaughn and Henry “Shake” Washington.
Member Melissa Snively told the board, “I have no interest today in breaking the law” before she and Stacy Hahn, cast the two dissenting votes.
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“Just because Miami-Dade jumped off of a cliff, it doesn’t mean we have to jump off a cliff with them,” Snively said. “Isn’t that what we tell our children?”
She and Hahn suggested that the district find other ways to tighten its safety protocols and send fewer students home on quarantine. And Hahn said she had to agree with parents who wanted to make the decision about masking. “We know what is best for our children, not a government,” she said.
Washington responded, “I don’t want to take away from the parents. But our job is to take care of students.”
In taking Wednesday’s action, the board went against the recommendation of superintendent Addison Davis, who preferred to stay with the current practice of requiring masks and allowing students to opt out if they wanted.
He took that position, he said, to stay within state guidance even though his own teenage daughter is in virtual school this year because of health concerns.
But the five board members warned that if they did not take action as the virus spreads, so many students with be either sick or on quarantine that it will be hard to keep the schools open.
“I am not going to close this district or this organization,” Combs said. She estimated about 30,000 students and staff were sent home in all of the last school year. After just seven days this year, the district has sent more than 10,000 home already for isolation, when someone has COVID-19, or to be quarantined, which is ordered after exposure to the virus.
Perez said she has heard some children are afraid to eat lunch. “We have children sitting shoulder to shoulder in the lunchrooms,” She said. And at lunch, they do not wear masks.
Before voting, the board members were able to question a group of physicians including Dr. Doug Holt, director of the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County.
Holt told them the measure would not likely affect community spread, as unvaccinated adults in the 18-40 year old age group appear to be the biggest driver.
But, within the schools, he said, universal masks will help. “They will reduce the amount of virus that is in the air and therefore you can expect fewer infections in the school,” he said.
How the state will respond to Hillsborough’s action was unclear late Wednesday. One legal tactic the board took was to ensure that the new rule hewed closely to the masking policy that the state approved in 2020, when schools reopened.
The board also discussed the hardship some families might have in getting medical documentation if their children cannot wear masks. They agreed that if a student had a medical exemption last year, those documents can be used this year as well.
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