UPDATE | Sept. 9: The Hillsborough County School Board passed a motion Thursday to extend its mask mandate for another 30 days.
The mandate, which drew criticism and ultimatums from the state, requires all students and staff to wear face coverings unless they provide medical paperwork to opt out.
Parents are not permitted to opt their children out for any other reason.
"Based on the continued presence of COVID-19 in our schools the School Board made the decision today to continue the requirement for another 30 days until October 15," the district wrote in a statement. "The data suggests the requirement is working, but the board believes more time is needed to ensure the ongoing health, safety, and welfare of students, teachers, and staff."
TAMPA, Fla. — The board of the School District of Hillsborough County heard from more than 100 local residents advocating for and against further mask restrictions for students during its marathon COVID-related emergency meeting Wednesday afternoon.
Ultimately, the board ended the nearly five-hour session by voting to beef up its mask mandate by requiring medical paperwork to opt out.
What You Need To Know
- A stricter mask mandate takes effect Thursday in Hillsborough County
- The school board voted to allow only medical exemptions
- Related Coverage:
The public comment portion of the meeting ran well past its initially allotted hour as members of the community — some in tears — argued passionately for or against defying Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ mandate that school systems cannot enforce mask-wearing.
The vast majority of speakers said they have parents or grandparents in the county’s school system. The field seemed split fairly evenly between pro- and anti-mask positions, though those with anti-mask opinions were more vocal, often eliciting cheers from those outside the boardroom as they left the microphone. Almost all who spoke respected the stringently enforced one-minute limit.
Comments were widely varied, from literal pleading to veiled threats to recall those elected. One speaker said she was an endocrinologist representing 200 medical professionals in favor of mandatory masking in Hillsborough public schools; another stated that any potential masking requirements were “what budding fascism looks like.” Many accused the board of overstepping its bounds in the face of DeSantis’ executive action; others posited that a mask requirement is a moral imperative that would protect everyone, including those who see the issue as one of personal freedom or parental choice.
An anti-mask speaker says, "this is what budding fascism looks like" during the Hillsborough School District emergency meeting @BN9— Scott Harrell (@scottharrellbn9) August 18, 2021
After nearly two hours of public comment, Hillsborough County Public Schools Superintendent Addison G. Davis thanked the speakers for their input before expressing his belief that his job is to support the board and follow the statutes in place, referring to the district’s existing mask mandate and opt-out protocol.
The county’s Florida Department of Health Epidemiology Program Manager, Michael Wiese, gave a presentation on Hillsborough’s COVID cases from March 2020 through August 14, 2021, highlighting a current positivity rate of 22% and the fact that pediatric and college-age rates are currently skyrocketing. He also provided a table showing the exponential jump in cases between the first days of school in 2020 and 2021. Ninety-nine percent of recent cases in the county have been confirmed to be the Delta variant of the coronavirus, with between 80 and 90% of recent cases occurring in the unvaccinated.
Hillsborough County School Board votes during emergency meeting to reinstate mask requirement with medical opt out @BN9— Melissa Eichman (@MEbn9) August 18, 2021
Wiese also pointed out that there are more than 200,000 children in Hillsborough County who are too young to be vaccinated, and that new vaccinations among all eligible age groups have flattened.
Following Wiese’s presentation, Nadia T. Combs moved that the district reinstate the protocol (requiring masks with a medical opt-out) that opened the 2020 school year for 30 days. Henry Washington seconded, and discussion ensued. Board attorney Jim Porter referenced the punitive troubles experienced by Broward and Alachua County after adapting similar ordinances, and explained the legal position the district would take if Combs’s motion passed — that the rule was, in fact, compliant with DeSantis’s order due to its inclusion of an opt-out.
Members of the board conferred with Wiese and other local medical professionals, including USF Health Morsani College of Medicine Department of Pediatrics chair Dr. Patricia Emmanuel, on infection rates, the Delta variant, mask efficacy and other potential COVID mitigation strategies. When asked point-blank if a 30-day mask mandate would save lives, infectious diseases specialist Dr. Douglas A. Holt was unable to provide a clear answer, given all the other variables.
“I believe it will reduce infections in the school,” he said, while adding that it may not reduce infection in the community at large.
Combs closed the medical discussion by reminding the public to look at the whole picture of the pandemic, and at what’s important to the community’s children.
“I’m here to keep kids in school,” she said.
Board members made their own comments and contributions (“I have no interest here today in breaking the law,” said District 4’s Melissa Snively), with some asking Davis further logistical questions. Finally, at 5:47 p.m. and after a round of final thoughts, the board voted 5-2 to begin an enhanced 30-day mask mandate wherein those who wish to opt their children out of wearing masks to obtain the approval of a medical professional — potentially putting Hillsborough County at risk of drawing DeSantis’s and the state’s ire.
District 2’s Stacy Hahn and District 4’s Melissa Snively cast the dissenting votes.
"It’s very clear what the order spells out and what we’re allowed and not allowed to do, however at this particular time, this school board has made a stance and my role and responsibility as superintendent is to implement the wishes of the board," Superintendent Addison Davis said.
You can watch the meeting here: