Hillsborough addition means Florida’s top three school districts now have mask mandates against Gov.’s wishes

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Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Addison Davis speaks to media on Aug. 6, 2021.

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The Hillsborough County School Board Wednesday voted to institute a 30-day mandatory mask policy. Board members voted 5-2 to institute the temporary mandate with an option for parents to opt-out, but only with a letter from a doctor.

The rule goes into effect Thursday.

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Board members Melissa Snively and Stacey Hahn dissented.

Jessica Vaugh, district three’s board member, has remained a staunch advocate for mandating masks.

“There’s the issue of protecting our students, our most vulnerable. Especially our 12-and-under group who don’t have access to vaccination,” Vaugh said. “With this constant state overreach and the State of Florida and the Department of Education trying to make a decision about whether or not we have the right to keep our district safe and make local decisions. It’s concerning and honestly, I think it’s an attack on democracy.”

Florida’s three largest school districts are now bucking Gov. Ron De Santis’s insistence that masking remains optional.

The school district opened the year with a mask mandate, but also a no-questions-asked opt-out policy. The emergency meeting came after COVID-19 quarantined more than 8,000 students and 300 staff. All in the first week of school.

DeSantis has crusaded against any form of mask or vaccination mandate. That’s despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending masks indoors. Even for the vaccinated in light of the dominant Delta Variant.

The State Board of Education Tuesday said districts that have instituted stricter mask mandates can be penalized. Earlier this month, the Department of Health issued rules that said schools can require masks with an opt-out. But did not specify how an opt-out could be structured.

DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran have threatened to withhold state funding; salaries; and even remove board members who vote in favor of mask mandates.

Dubious legality

Hillsborough Schools attorney James Porter said while a mask mandate could be risky, the District could have some legal protection.

“Our position is we are in compliance with regulation because we are allowing for an opt-out,” Porter said. “The rule does not preclude or prohibit requiring a medical update. I’ll remind you again the state has rejected the argument I just made. And there is a risk that they will find us in non-compliance and the district will suffer penalties.”

And congress member Kathy Castor told administration and board members that the federal government could potentially reimburse the district. In a speech Wednesday, President Joe Biden has pledged the U.S. Department of Education will use its civil rights arm to go after states that block school districts from requiring masks.

According to the Hillsborough Department of Health, COVID cases are rising to record-breaking numbers. The Delta variant is also impacting children at higher rates than last year’s spike.

Hillsborough now joins Alachua, Broward and Miami-Dade – the state’s largest District – in instituting mask mandates.

Board members will reevaluate the rule at the end of 30 days.

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