HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – As the start date for the upcoming school year continues to near, parents, teachers, students, and school districts across Tampa Bay continue to express concerns regarding the uptick in cases of coronavirus throughout the community.
Of the issues raised, many have asked for mask mandates. However, on Friday, June 30, Governor Ron DeSantis signed an executive order effectively banning school districts from establishing mask mandates in response to rising cases.
The order states the Florida Department of Education and Florida Department of Health would create rules to keep COVID-19 protocols from violating constitutional freedoms, parents’ right to make health care decisions for their children, and protect children with disabilities from being harmed by mask mandates.
“That executive order protects the rights of parents. One of which it gives the parent the right to choose whether or not he or she aspires to put their child out in a situation with masks,” said Hillsborough County Superintendent Addison Davis.
*The video above is the full Hillsborough County Public Schools Back to School press conference*
Shortly after DeSantis issued the executive order, however, several school districts across the state voted to mandate masks, in turn defying the governor.
While it has been a topic of discussion and possibility, Davis said going against the order is something Hillsborough County cannot afford to do.
“For those who elect to transition and go and rival the executive order, it’s been very clear that there’s financial implications that will hurt school districts… We are not in a situation, any way shape or form, that we can give any dollar, any cent away,” he said.
School Board Chair Lynn Gray echoed the superintendent’s sentiment, expressing even if the school board wanted to fight the governor’s executive order, they will not stand a chance to the implications that would follow.
“I understand after three letters from Commissioner Corcoran that they are serious. That, in fact, locally with the first two that legally our finances could not put up the necessary fight against their letters,” said Gray. “How do I feel about fighting it? The moneys, not only in our district but most districts, are just not there and it’s a tough place to be. There is no comfortable zone in this decision. We are doing everything we can to make our school environment safe and without any other possibilities of fighting this to the governor we’re going to continue to move.”
Additionally, Davis ensured a vaccination mandate is also not a possibility.
“It’s the choice of the employee. The choice where they feel most comfortable… we’re going to support that choice,” he said.
Despite no mandates or requirements in place, the superintendent reassured that health and safety measures will continue to remain in place in schools across the district.
“I want to make certain that as Mrs. Gray talked about, the safety continues to be the anchor, the foundation, the priority of our school district,” he said.
The superintendent stated the following protocols will be intact:
- PPE made available in classrooms, school buses
- Sanitation stations (ie. wipes, hand sanitizer)
- Directional hallways
- Plexiglass in lunchroom meal lines
- Seating charts in cafeterias, classrooms
He also stated the county will continue to utilize its data dashboard, which refreshes every four hours to show which schools have had a positive case of COVID-19.
Out of the possibility a student or employee tests positive, they will still be required to quarantine.
“Individuals determined to be close contacts will quarantine for 10 days if they remain symptom free per CDC and FDOH recommendations OR seven days if a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test on day six or later is negative and they remain symptom free,” a district official said.
Vaccinated students and employees and those who have tested positive in the last 90 days do not need to quarantine.
Those who are asked to quarantine have met the following conditions:
- Direct contact within six feet of one another
- Not wearing a mask
- 15 minutes of exposure
Once the student or employee reaches their sixth day away from school, they must get tested for COVID. If the results come back negative, they will be allowed to return on the eighth day.
Like all situations, though, the Hillsborough County School Board will continue to reassess the virus’ implications on schools across the county.
Masks will be encouraged and vaccination efforts will continue to be organized for district employees.