HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – Hillsborough County students will be back in school on Tuesday as covid cases rise. But don’t expect a return of any mask mandate.

As the COVID rate surges in Hillsborough County, Hillsborough County School Superintendent Addison Davis says state law now prevents school systems from enforcing a mask mandate, but students will be encouraged to wear them.

“First and foremost, we can not mandate masks with House Bill 1B. We continue to encourage and will continue to do so as an organization,” said Davis.

First-grader Libby Brown is ready to go back to school after her winter break.

“I can do really fun crafts when I get back,” said Brown.

But as students and their families have been off and spending time together the covid landscape has changed again.

Superintendent Davis says before winter break the covid positive rate was four percent in the county. Now it’s close to 14 percent.

“This is all due to the time we’ve spent with our friends, our loved ones during gatherings of the holidays, which we all desperately need, but it has all started to transition with a new variant and it’s what you see with a spike within our community,” Davis said.

However, the issue to wear a mask or not wear a mask is as divisive as ever.

“I defer to their parents and I think that’s the appropriate decision for the school board to make to defer to the parent’s decision,” Colleen Brown said.

Libby’s brother Andrew says they’ll be wearing masks.

“Yea, we have to go back with masks because there’s a lot of sickies around,” Andrew said.

School Board Chairperson Nadia Combs says the goal is to keep students in the classroom.

“We’re learning that we need to adapt and live with this because we can’t have children out of school for years and we know that students belong in schools,” Combs said.

Superintendent Davis says he expects about two thousand employees will be off from work tomorrow with their positions being temporarily filled by school district employees and even athletic coaches being asked to fill in for a class to keep the educational process going.