HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — A Florida school district voted 5-2 to enact a more restrictive mask mandate for students.
The new mask mandate for Hillsborough County Public Schools came after hours of debate and public comment during an emergency meeting Wednesday.
The district reported Wednesday that more than 10,000 students and more than 300 school district employees were in isolation or quarantine due to COVID-19. That's equivalent to a little more than 4.4% of the student population in the county.
Before public comment started, Superintendent Addison Davis said his recommendation was to continue to have the district enact the mask mandate with a parental opt-out, which has been the policy since the beginning of the school year. Davis later said his recommendation was based upon the need to follow the law. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order that bans school districts from mandating masks.
School board member Nadia Combs made a motion for a new mask mandate with only medical exemptions, removing the parental choice option. The motion was seconded and that kicked off the hours of discussion, warnings, and wrangling with what to do as COVID continues to spread.
School board attorney James Porter discussed what could happen if the board voted to enact the more restrictive mask mandate and said they could face penalties from the state up to and including removal, withholding money, and more. Porter mentioned that both Alachua and Broward County will face undefined sanctions from the state for their actions enacting similar more restrictive mask mandates.
Porter said district lawyers would make a legal argument the district’s new mandate remains legal under the state guidelines but warned the other two districts made similar arguments and were rejected by the state.
During the meeting, Miami-Dade County Schools also enacted a similar mask mandate as the one adopted by Hillsborough. Meaning, some of the largest school districts in the state now have similar mask mandates that may or may not pass muster with the state board of education.
After Porter finished, the community was allowed to speak and passionate speeches from members of the community on both sides were given. Community members were limited to two minutes in their comments with most using the entire time to make their specific points.
Many parents pleaded with the board to do more to protect their children by enacting more restrictive mask policies as COVID continued to spread. Physicians and other medical professionals also spoke in favor of increasing mask usage because as one said, the ER is “drowning in patients.” Still, opponents said a more restrictive mask mandate was about “tyranny” or a “power grab” by the board. One went so far as to liken the discussion on more restrictive mask mandates to 1930s Germany.