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Hillsborough Schools Launch Reopening Plan, Address Mask Mandate

 Superintendent Addison Davis explained the Hillsborough County School District's reopening plan at Rodgers Middle Magnet School Wednesday morning.
Jacob Wentz
Superintendent Addison Davis explained the Hillsborough County School District's reopening plan at Rodgers Middle Magnet School on Wednesday morning.

Hillsborough County School District officials talked about COVID-19 safety precautions — and expressed frustration with state restrictions — at a press conference Wednesday morning.

The Hillsborough County School District launched its reopening plan this week as Florida experiences a surge in hospitalizations and new COVID-19 cases driven by the highly contagious delta variant.

“As we welcome back the majority of our students in Hillsborough County, we know that we still will have some barriers that we'll have to face,” Superintendent Addison Davis said.

“We didn't really recognize that COVID would have somewhat of a major spike and we'd be faced with a new variant. But I want to make certain that safety continues to be the anchor, the foundation, and the priority of our school district.”

When schools open Monday, many of the same COVID-19 safety protocols from last year will remain in place, including sanitation stations in classrooms and social distancing when possible.

But at a Wednesday morning press conference, officials said the district will not make students wear masks, despite the recent uptick in cases, due to threats of losing state funding.

That ultimatum comes from an executive order Gov. Ron DeSantis signed last week prohibiting local school districts from instituting mask mandates.

“The reality is there will be people in our school environment who will not have the vaccine, but will not have a mask on,” school board Chair Lynn Gray said. “So that's the worry. We don't have the control, and that's so frustrating.”

School districts in Alachua and Broward counties voted to reinstate mask mandates after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidance that all students, teachers, staff and visitors should wear masks inside K-12 schools, regardless of whether they are vaccinated. Duval County schools approved a mask requirement with an “opt-out” clause.

A spokesperson for DeSantis advised caution to those districts.

Jacob Wentz
Board Chair Lynn Gray told reporters that she is frustrated the state will cut funding if they disagree with local school board decisions.

“I scratched my head because I also thought, well, maybe we can go ahead and fight it,” Gray said, referencing those districts. “But the monies, not only in our district, but most districts, are just not there. It’s a tough place to be.”

When asked if Gray would consider joining other counties in potentially litigating against the state, she said the district “hasn’t gotten to that conversation yet.”

“Were other boards and localities in Florida to come together, that may occur,” she added.

As of now, Hillsborough school officials are encouraging students to wear masks when they return next week.

“Whether it's through the CDC guidelines, whether it's through medical local experts, they strongly recommend students who are not vaccinated to wear the mask,” Davis said. “And as a leader, I will stand with them and make certain this is a strong recommendation within this community.”

In addition to sanitation stations and social distancing, the school district will continue to update its COVID-19 dashboard.

Unvaccinated students and employees determined to have been in close contact with infected individuals will be quarantined for 10 days if they remain symptom free, or seven days if a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test on day six or later is negative and they remain symptom free.

Vaccinated people and those who have tested positive in the last 90 days do not need to quarantine.

“The majority of our students that were quarantined last year were not deemed positive with COVID, so there's a lot of days missed for students that can be in front of our teachers and in our schools where we need them the most,” Davis said.

“I'm not afraid of looking at all the patterns and reducing that number outside of the CDC guidelines to make it a three to five day quarantine and having a rapid assessment to bring our students back as soon as possible to get them in front of us.”

Quarantined students will be able to access coursework from home on Canvas, the district’s online learning management system.

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Jacob Wentz