Tampa Bay schools need to keep masks in place | Editorial
Safety for students and school staff must be the priority.
Students congregate on campus before the doors open during the first day of school for Pasco County Schools on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, at Gulf Middle School in New Port Richey.
Students congregate on campus before the doors open during the first day of school for Pasco County Schools on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, at Gulf Middle School in New Port Richey. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Oct. 31, 2020

This is not the time for area school districts to endanger public safety by abandoning mask mandates. Masks are a valuable tool for limiting the spread of the coronavirus — both on-campus, and across the community — and school leaders should keep this simple precaution in place as Tampa Bay continues its march to safely reopen.

School districts across the region wisely adopted the mandates as part of a multi-pronged approach to reopening amid the pandemic. Along with new sanitation protocols and social distancing, the masks have provided another layer of protection and a confidence-boost for students yearning to return to the classroom.

As the Tampa Bay Times' Jeffrey S. Solochek reported, school boards in Pinellas and Pasco counties authorized their superintendents to require facial coverings through emergency powers associated with the pandemic. Those orders were good for 90 days, and the renewal deadline has arrived. The Pasco school board is scheduled to hold a public hearing Tuesday on extending the policy through May. Pinellas is set to act on its extension a week later. These are sensible, responsible steps that will protect students, staff and their families and help the region recover more quickly.

It’s encouraging that area school districts are not buckling to the hysteria and junk science that the mandates have attracted from a small group of critics. Combined with other safety measures on campus, such as distancing in the classrooms and added sanitation practices, the masks can help slow the virus' spread. With infections rising across Florida, with more students eager to return to classroom instruction, and with the winter flu season approaching, it only makes sense to continue requiring masks. Masks are hardly an inconvenience, much less a violation of individual rights. Students whose families choose to remain in a group setting during a pandemic have no right to endanger a fellow student, teacher, bus driver or cafeteria attendant.

Both districts should, as expected, keep their orders in place. “We’re going to do what we have to do to keep our students and staff safe,” said Pinellas board chairwoman Carol Cook. Officials are relying on the advice of local medical experts to guide their decisions. But as Dr. Ulyee Choe of the Pinellas health department told board members: “Now is not the time to take the foot off the gas."

Rather than being bothersome, these mandates are contributing to a healthier community, and a speedier return to normal for the economy and society at large. It’s also worth noting that the complaints are coming from some parents — not students or teachers, who are the ones wearing the masks and who have managed just fine. The Hernando County School District has no plans to alter its mandate, and the Hillsborough County School District is not due to revisit its mask requirement until December or January.

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Let’s keep these valuable protections in place during this critical period.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news