TAMPA (WFLA) – The debate over masks in school that has divided communities in Tampa Bay was on full display at the nearly five hour Hillsborough School Board meeting Wednesday that ended with a vote to reinstate a 30-day mandatory mask policy with limited medical exemptions.
“This tiny piece of cloth is not taking away your freedoms, it is not a symbol of tyranny,” a high school student told the board.
“Our state has taken a stand for the freedom of parents to choose what is best for their children,” a parent said during the nearly two-hour public comment.
The Hillsborough School district has already told more than 10,000 students to stay home in isolation for a positive test or quarantine for potential exposure to the virus.
The district’s dashboard shows more than 2,000 student and staff cases so far in August.
School board members who voted for the new policy said they hope it can slow the spread of the virus and reduce the number of quarantines.
“We want to make sure we’re doing everything that we can do to subtract the spread of the virus with further complications to the student’s health and to the staff,” school board chair Lynn Gray told reporters.
During the five-hour meeting, school board members consulted health experts from the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County, Tampa General Hospital, and USF Health.
“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.”
The new 30-day mask policy applies to students, teachers, and staff.
“We will have exemptions for those who need psychological, medical or physical exemptions and we’ll work with those who’ve already identified that from last year and allow that to roll over for this particular year,” Superintendent Addison Davis said.
Superintendent Davis said before the vote because of state law he wanted to keep the mask policy in place where any student can opt-out if their parent submits a form.
“This school board has made a stance,” Davis said. “My role and responsibility as superintendent is to implement the wishes of the board.”
Davis is also asking for parents help.
“If a learner doesn’t feel good, allow that learner to stay home,” he said. “If a learner has symptoms, allow them to stay home.”
How the mask policy will be enforced is still being worked out, Davis said.
Hillsborough Schools joins the other two biggest districts in the state – Broward and Miami-Dade – in bringing back stricter rules against the wishes of Gov. Ron DeSantis and an emergency order from the Florida surgeon general.
“No politician is above the law, even the HCPS school board members,” press secretary for Gov. DeSantis Christina Pushaw told 8 On Your Side in an email. “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.”
Pushaw referred 8 On Your Side to the Florida Department of Education on possible consequences for Hillsborough School leaders.
Threats have been made to withhold funding, remove board members or take away salaries for superintendents.
The new mask policy in Hillsborough Schools is scheduled to last until Friday, Sept. 17.