TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The Hillsborough County School Board voted Wednesday to defy Gov. DeSantis’ order and mandate masks for all students and staff amid rising COVID-19 cases among students and staff. The meeting itself began with a planned public commentary from a diverse group of parents and concerned citizens.

Following the public comment portion, school board members and Superintendent Addison G. Davis heard from concerned parents on both sides of the mask debate, the special called meeting switched to a discussion of the policy, case numbers year-over-year, and what next steps to take.

Final thoughts from the board and a vote

The board gave Superintendent Davis 48 hours to draft a comprehensive plan for a new mask and mitigation policy for the school district.

Chair Lynn Gray acknowledged that 48 hours may not be enough time to plan for everything, but the pending announcement of an updated plan would still come from Davis.

The school board’s members gave final thoughts on the current COVID-19 circumstances before voting on a 30-day mask mandate with a limited medical exemption for opt-out that parents could request.

Right now the county is at 22% COVID-positivity, according to board member Karen Perez, D6.

Perez said she’s had constituents call her expressing worries over the close quarters of lunch periods, and asked that the superintendent help improve social distancing options. Davis said he was concerned about lunchrooms and school buses for how they impact the potential for social distancing.

Chair Lynn Gray confirmed that a 48-hour window to draft plans may not be able to hit on all of the concerns that the governing body’s members had expressed.

On a 5-2 vote, the Hillsborough County School Board voted to continue the current mask policy for 30 days while the superintendent prepares a new plan for a potential update to the mitigation factors and masking policies for Hillsborough County Schools.

Only board members Melissa Snively and Stacy Hahn dissented.

By the numbers

8 On Your Side reports that more than 1,000 students have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the school year, and now 10,722 are currently impacted today. As of 4:52 p.m., the Hillsborough County Schools COVID Dashboard reports 2,013 reported cases of COVID-19, counting employees and students. The dashboard notes that “There were 8,771 reported cases of COVID-10 to the district between March 2020 and July 2021 that are not included in the current COVID-19 Dashboard totals.”

Dr. Michael T. Wiese, the epidemiology program manager for the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County, presented case data comparing the two years, 2020 and 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the beginning of 2020, there were an average of 458 cases per day, with the majority among middle and high schoolers.

In 2021, there are currently 1,622 cases per day. While the majority of cases are among middle and high school students, the elementary school average jumped from 13 per day in 2020 to 117 per day in 2021, reflecting an 800% increase according to the board’s data.

The data presented showed that 99% of the recent Hillsborough County cases were the delta variant, and 97.4% of cases were among unvaccinated Floridians in the county, from January 2021 to date. 88.7% of deaths were among the unvaccinated in Hillsborough County.

Multiple board members requested quarantine numbers for how many students had been quarantined and tested positive, as well as a request for putting more specific quarantine data on the dashboard run by the county.

During the meeting, the additional quarantine information was added to the dashboard, according to Superintendent Davis.

Board members say vacancies in the school system remain a point of concern as well, down 338 employees according to Perez. The superintendent said that the vacancies, particularly among bus drivers, have had major impacts on operations. There are currently 80 to 90 vacancies for bus drivers alone.

“It’s a lot of stress,” Davis said. “And that puts stress on our district as well.” The double backs affect schedules and student stress levels, according to the superintendent. He says it becomes a safety and transparency issue, too.

While asking a closing question, Snively acknowledged that mitigation strategies must improve, but remains opposed to the more restrictive policies proposed by her fellow board members and reiterated her support of the current state orders issued by Gov. DeSantis. She appeared to expect a vote to pass, despite objections.

Henry “Shake” Washington from District 5 provided comment on the vacancies, saying that was nothing new, then moved onto “the elephant” should a 30-day mask policy pass during a vote: What to do for enforcement.

Davis jumped in, detailing the methods the school district used last year for enforcement, though the system of contacting parents was enabled alongside the now inactive e-learning program. Previously, parents would be asked to bring their child home and begin e-learning lessons instead, rather than put their ability to continue with school at risk.

Hillsborough School Board members weighed options

Following the vote in the State Board of Education rejecting the mask policies of Alachua and Broward counties’ school districts, Hillsborough Board Attorney Jim Porter noted that the vote approved the withholding of state funding, salaries for superintendents and board members, and removing board members from office.

However, Porter noted that the statutes referenced to allow such enforcement action did not technically include those particular powers.

The focus of the state’s rejection of the two policies was based upon the opt-out for parents requiring a medical note from a doctor’s note. A secondary proposal would limit the mandate to 30 days.

Porter advised the board that “there are risks involved” to consider before a vote to strengthen restrictions on a potential opt-out for parents on masking their children in school. Regarding the withholding of funding and/or salaries, board Chair Lynn Gray reminded the board that U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor had circulated a letter promising federal support.

Then, the board discussed the specifics of the medical exemption and policies on campuses, including the exemption form to provide to parents seeking the opt-out.

The form, as discussed, asks for basic student and parent information, their student identification numbers, a signature and contact number, and finally, a medical certification from a licensed healthcare provider that describes the medical reason for mask exemptions.

District staff will validate medical exemptions, according to the board as described in the meeting. Following proposal, discussion began between board members, making reference to the current state of the health crisis facing the state, country, and county.

A medical expert from the University of South Florida answered questions on mask efficacy, acknowledging their not being perfect, but still supporting use of masks.

“Masks protect both, both the wearer and those around them. We know that cloth masks are not perfect, we know that they are a one-layer when we are in surgery or when we have a positive COVID patient in the hospital,” said Dr. Patricia ‘Pat’ Emmanuel, a pediatric infectious disease physician, and the chair of pediatrics at USF. “But they do prevent the transmission of large droplets, when the child is sneezing, coughing, so they protect others but they also prevent that child from inhaling other droplets and from really touching their mouth, etcetera. So I believe there’s a rationale for the protection of themselves and others.”

Still, Emmanuel noted that they are using N95 masks in hospitals. She also said hospitals are “very stretched” right now as a result of the increase in cases.

Regarding efficacy during lunch, as masks are used, the board is reportedly weighing paying teaches to work during their breaks and finding additional funds to pay for it in order to have staff help enforce social distancing needs.

“As we talk about lunch, that’s one of the common areas that we’re struggling with,” Davis said about social distancing during lunch periods. He mentioned potentially using American Rescue Plan ESSER funds to either pay for staff to remain on the clock or hiring part-time staff instead to address this need.

District 4 board member Melissa Snively expressed concerns about medical certifications for opt-out, citing wait times and medical workers being asked for “even more bandwidth” on capacity and wondering whether or not medical staff would be providing free healthcare to students in need due to the required medical exemption, asking about the cost of seeking and retaining one.

Concerns over the effects of long-term quarantining filled one portion of the board’s medical question and answer session, brought up by Nadia T. Combs from District 1.

“I am very concerned about long-term speech therapy, so that’s why I was very intentional with my 30 days. I want schools to stay open,” Combs said. “For me, this is not political. I am not on the board for political divisiveness. I am on the board because I care about children. I know that children want to be in school. Children have returned back to school because they want to be there. I am not going to close this district or this organization, that is not what I’m going to do. If it requires children to wear a mask for 30 days, so we can go past this peak, that’s what I’m asking for…We are going to have to learn to live with COVID. But right now, I think it’s really important to mask our children, for 30 days, and our faculty and staff.”

Even so, the 30-day mask mandate could still retain medical certification requirements as the proposal currently stands. Based on the decisions voted upon and approved by the State Board of Education regarding Alachua and Broward counties’ school districts, the limited time policy may still see similar pushback from the state government. Without the policy in effect, and pending a vote, it isn’t yet clear if such state actions will come.

ESSER funds were also a point of issue, in terms of how the funds would or could be used to help school districts recover from COVID-19. District 6’s board member, Karen Perez, said the $400 million in ESSER funds given to Hillsborough County Schools and the access to the funds in a timely manner “is what makes this country great” as well as putting student safety first.

The funds were sent to states on March 21, 2021. However, now in August, the funds have still not been disbursed. The funds were supposed to be delivered to local education agencies within 60 days, which Perez says was back in June.

“Students being in brick and mortar is essential, for learning and the safety of these students is paramount,” Perez said. “These funds are needed in order to secure our schools and for the students at this time.”

Parents shared concerns, for and against masks

The public comment portion of the meeting gave parents the chance to speak, with a variety of different positions in support of and opposition to a potential increase of mask restrictions and requirements.

The financial status of Hillsborough County Schools was a topic brought up by some members of the community, a reason previously cited by the school district for not fighting previous mandate prohibitions by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state legislature.

An e-learning program discussed by Porter carries a financial risk to the district, as payment to the school system by the state government only allows for payments per student in school for brick and mortar, in-person learning.

Porter said the e-learning program would not allow for payment per student from the state as they were not physically in a classroom, barring a hypothetical protection that would allow it to proceed and receive the funds necessary for the students in the program.

Some parents and members of the community lobbed criticism at masks and their effects on student mental health, others at the state’s ongoing stance of prohibiting mask mandates

Still, while some parents expressed concerns about case numbers and the spread of the delta variant, others asked when the community should stop “living in fear.”

Others asked the school district “to be courageous” and have a mask mandate with specific exemptions from doctor’s notes, and to strengthen their mask requirements.

The number of hospitalizations in Florida and the trend of who is being infected and dying was brought up by multiple health professionals, who took the opportunity to address the school board. Some parents said they’re concerned by the lack of ICU bed availability, for children and adults, and for COVID-19 and other conditions, saying the need for masks would help keep hospitals from being overwhelmed.

Several parents said that masking is “assault” on their kids, citing harassment as making their children feel like they’re being treated like “terrorists” over choosing to have their students not wear masks. Multiple parents argued that the mask mandates were a form of tyranny and infringed upon their freedoms as parents and Floridians.

Of the speakers in the public comment portion of the meeting, divisions remained present in reasons for and against support of the mask requirements both as they currently stand, and the potential for increasing the levels of restriction.

Some parents with young children who are not yet eligible for vaccination shared issues they have with the lack of e-learning available this school year, even as the number of cases continue to rise.

Parents against the mask mandate asked what the effectiveness of the policy requiring masks was, if removal of the face coverings during lunch while students are close together, continued.

Others said the policies didn’t make sense or questioned board members for removing masks to speak while asking how students should react to what they say are mixed messages.

Many parents, in both camps, brought up the politics of the moment, both for and against mask requirements, virus lethality, and other related enforcement topics. Some cited the coming midterm elections, regarding the offices of board members.

While the community remained divided on how to proceed, one thing all of the parents and speakers had in common was a focus on the importance of their children’s safety, regardless of their beliefs on the approach to dealing with the current COVID-19 climate.

As the public comment portion continued, Hillsborough parents cited concerns over higher suicide rates and mental health risks due to masking amid the pandemic.

While long-term mental health effects are still unclear, Florida Department of Health data showed that year-over-year, suicide rates dropped 9% during the pandemic. Preliminary numbers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed a similar trend.

Still, while suicides were down over the past year despite pandemic stress, drug overdoses were on the rise and Florida accounted for roughly 8% of U.S. overdoses.

The meeting comes after Florida’s State Board of Education voted yesterday to sanction and punish Alachua and Broward county school districts due to their local mask requirements. While it is still unclear what those punishments will be, the possibility of consequences for additional restrictions hangs over the coming meeting.

A spokesperson for Gov. DeSantis’ office reached out to 8 On Your Side following the announcement of the county’s mandate.

“Forced masking of schoolchildren infringes upon parents’ rights to make health and educational decisions for their own children. No politician is above the law, even the HCPS school board members. It is disappointing that HCPS school board chose to change their mask policy, which had previously protected the freedom for parents to opt their kids out, in compliance with Florida law.”

Christina Pushaw