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Hillsborough School Board To Require Masks For Next Month

screen capture of board meeting
Hillsborough County Schools
The Hillsborough County School Board voted 5-2 Wednesday to require masks — unless a student gets a medical exemption from a doctor — for the next 30 days.

The mask requirement risks provoking the wrath of the governor and education commissioner.

Hillsborough County School Board members voted Wednesday to require masks be worn in county schools for the next 30 days.

The vote was 5 to 2 to require students and staffers to mask up beginning Thursday.

It allows parents to opt out if they get a medical waiver from their doctor. It also exempts students who got a waiver last year from wearing masks.

 School Board Chairwoman Lynn Gray
Hillsborough TV
School Board Chairwoman Lynn Gray

School board chairwoman Lynn Gray said there are currently more than 10,000 students and school staffers in isolation after being exposed to COVID-19 during the first week and a half of school.

She fears that could double by next week.

"Quarantining is out of hand," she said. "Ten thousand cases. I would say by next week, if we continue, we will see perhaps double.

"We cannot sustain any longer the plethora of our children who are being quarantined — they are not getting an education," Gray said. "Two weeks out of a month is not an education."

Melissa Snively was one of two board members who voted no.

School Board member Melissa Snively
Hillsborough TV
School Board member Melissa Snively

"I have no interest today in breaking the law," she said. "We've gotten an executive order from the governor of our state. We have seen what the ramifications have been yesterday, were, and could be."

Cases of the coronavirus in Hillsboruogh County’s children are up across all age groups. The county is averaging 320 pediatric cases a day, Michael Wiese, an epidemiologist with the Florida Department of Health, told Hillsborough commissioners on Wednesday. That compares to an average of 48 cases a day during the first week of school last year.

Pediatric hospitalizations have also been increasing and there were two reported pediatric deaths in the county related to COVID-19, Wiese said.

"Consistently over the past year, as cases start to increase in our community, that's when we start to see those increases in our children and in our schools," he said.

Forty-three percent of 12- to 19-year-olds in Hillsborough have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. But there are still more than 84,000 county youth in that age group who are unvaccinated.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Richard Corcoran, his education commissioner, have threatened to cut off funding for any schools who require all students to wear masks. Currently, most school districts allow parents to opt out of mask-wearing.

Now, the state's three biggest school districts — including the largest, Miami-Dade — have defied the governor and voted to require masks.

The board went against the recommendation of school Superintendent Addison Davis, who said because of the threat of the state withholding funds, they should continue the current practice of requiring masks and allowing parents to opt out.

Before the vote, a long line of parents spoke out both in favor and opposed to mask mandates.

Final vote
Final vote tally

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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