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Manatee, Pinellas Schools Stay With Mask-Optional Policies

Pinellas will continue to strongly recommend masks, but parents do not have to fill out forms if they choose to not wear one.

Despites pleas from concerned parents and advice from national medical groups that mask wearing should be universal in schools this fall, school boards in Manatee and Pinellas counties decided Monday to stick with the mask-optional policies.

Florida is experiencing record numbers of coronavirus cases, with 28,317 new cases on Saturday and another 28,317 on Sunday, plus a new high for hospitalizations statewide 13,977, according to official figures Monday.

But the school boards cited Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order that parents have the choice of whether their children wear masks along with his threats to withhold money from districts that do not comply as reasons for not changing their policies.

Pinellas County Schools spokeswoman Isabel Mascarenas said the district will continue to strongly recommend masks, but parents do not have to fill out forms if they or their child chooses to not use a mask. The board held a special workshop Monday, but there was no public comment. Parents supporting a mask mandate did protest beforehand at the meeting in Largo.

At a Monday special meeting in Manatee, school board member James Golden accused Tallahassee of “playing politics with a health issue."

"And nobody really wants to come out and say that. This is a political effort, a political machination to deal with a serious health crisis that we have in this state,” he said.

“Our governor issued this emergency order, not based on any science, but based on what he's hoping that his political base will accept and embrace. That's what we're doing."

Hillsborough County schools Superintendent Addison Davis decided over the weekend to require masks in the nation’s eighth largest school district, but to allow parents to opt out by filling out a form that does not require a medical note.

"To me it's a distinction without a difference – to say masks are optional and we have mandatory masks but there is an opt out – [these] are exactly the same thing," said Manatee board Chair Charlie Kennedy.

Some in the public comment period at the meeting Monday in Manatee spoke in favor of personal freedoms, or argued that the coronavirus cannot be legislated away.

But more speakers expressed anxiety about what they described as schools’ failure to offer basic coronavirus protections to children, especially since those under 12 are not yet eligible for a vaccine.

"I never thought we would live in such a bizarro world where I would have to come here and plead with the school officials responsible for my children's health and safety to please stand up now and protect them," said David Dean.

“I am extremely concerned with the rising numbers and the delta variant, that they are just not safe at school,” said Karyn Mantes, a mother in Manatee.

Hance Ellington, the father of a kindergartener in Manatee, questioned the ethics of allowing parents to make these choices.

"Ultimately, the mask option policy is empowering uniformed, misinformed, or ill-informed parents to make decisions that put their kids, my kids and everyone's kids at risk," he said.

The Pinellas board also discussed the issue in a special meeting Monday afternoon and decided against changing its mask-optional guidance.

Copyright 2021 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Kerry Sheridan is a reporter and co-host of All Things Considered at WUSF Public Media.