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Hillsborough and Pinellas school boards are calling for exceptional Monday meetings over masks

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Less than 24 hours prior classes begin, the Hillsborough County School Board will meet on Monday to discuss the highly divisive issue of masks.

A person in a suit and tie stands next to a bookshelf: Hillsborough County Schools Director Addison Davis talks and gets to know students Abby, 10, and Emma Cleary, 13, during a back-to-school press conference in Rodgers Middle on Wednesday, Aug 4.

© Ivy Ceballo / Times
Hillsborough County Schools Principal Addison Davis and admits students Abby, 10, and Emma Cleary, 13, speak during a back-to-school press conference at Rodgers Middle on Wednesday, August 4.

No agenda was posted at the end of the working day on Friday, and no description of the agenda was included in the announcement sent by the school district.

The notice simply said that the board would discuss recent actions by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Department of Health, and will allow members of the public one hour to speak.

The 10 a.m. meeting gives Supervisor Addison Davis a weekend to contemplate the plan to reopen the area, which has come under attack amid the rapid spread of unused strains of COVID-19.

In the beforetime afternoon, Davis told reporters, “We will highly recommend, and make, the use of masks in Hillsborough County public schools.”

Likewise, the Pinellas County School Board called a exceptional workshop at 1 p.m. Monday to discuss the state’s actions as well. Unlike the Hillsborough assembly, the workshop format does not allow for public comment or official voting.

“I look forward to the conversation,” Pinellas board member Caprice Edmund said.

On both sides of the bay, some board members and voters have been calling for private pre-school meetings on Tuesday in Hillsboro and Wednesday in Pinellas. In Pinellas, an online petition calling for a board meeting to discuss masking has attracted more than 1,000 signatures.

“They are playing politics with the health of our children,” said Brad Rosenheim, the father of two students at Midtown Academy in St. Petersburg. “My kids wear their masks to preserve them safe and protect those around them. This makes sense, just like we don’t allow people to smoke cigarettes at school because they can harm others.”

Both districts, like others across the state, are responding to a wave of recent state directives that followed DeSantis’ July 30 order banning school hideout mandates.

In a morning conference call, the state board of education approved two unused rules. The first says that during quarantine, students cannot be considered present unless they have access to assignments, materials and teachers. The second allows a student to seek a government scholarship to a private school if he or she feels harassed in any way by COVID-19 protocols, including steps suggested by some to divide those students who do not wear masks.

Another set of instructions, published by the state Department of Health, were similar to Board of Education rules, but with a key distinction in their wording. The Department of Health directive read: “Students may wear masks or confront coverings as a mitigation measure; however, the school must allow a parent or legal guardian of the student to opt out of the student’s wearing of the confront covering or mask.”

Davis acknowledged the possibility of withdrawing when he spoke to reporters on Friday.

“But we only have a few days to go to school,” Davis said. “Publicly, whether you implement this strategy versus making it highly recommended and making it elective, the result becomes the alike.”

Other complications may also arise, he said. “What if we command it, and the child doesn’t wear it?”

Davis said board members are divided on how to proceed. He seemed to favor maintaining the status quo.

“We are begin on Tuesday,” he said. “We have to remain consistent in our approach. We have to persevere to make sure that our families have a clear understanding of the direction we are going.” Then classify this statement by repeating, “This will be a slick process.”

Hillsborough finds itself unusual among the state’s 67 counties in that it is on the fiscal recovery plan, which Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran ordered in April. If Hillsborough allows its principal reserve account to fall below the state’s 2 percent requirement, the state can then take over control of the area’s finances. Since DeSantis has threatened to withhold funding for areas that oppose his orders to hide, Hillsborough leaders are privately protective of their financial position.

They also realize that if students seek scholarships for private schools because they feel harassed by the masks, the district will lose more money.

Anticipating that many families are apprehensive about sending their children to school buildings, the district is reopening enrollment for Hillsborough’s K-12 Virtual School, the online school that has grown more than tenfold during the pandemic. Families can apply between Saturday at 7 a.m. and Monday at 11:59 p.m. at this link:

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