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Despite new CDC guidance, masks to stay optional in Hillsborough, Pinellas schools

Superintendents in both districts say it should be left to each parent to decide what’s best for their child.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — With school starting in just two weeks in Florida, districts are grappling with new CDC guidance on masks as COVID-19 cases, fueled by the more contagious delta variant, continue to increase.

Citing new information about the variant's ability to spread among vaccinated people, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed course Tuesday on some masking guidelines, recommending indoor masks for all teachers, staff, students and visitors at schools nationwide, regardless of vaccination status.

Bay area school districts dropped mask mandates as summer break began following a steady months-long decline of COVID cases, deaths and hospitalizations. But those trends have changed, as the delta variant, a mutated and more transmissible version of the virus, is now spreading widely, especially in areas with lower vaccination rates.

At both the Hillsborough and Pinellas school board meetings Tuesday evening, parents, staff and students voiced support for and opposition to reinstating mask requirements for the new school year.

“The emergence of the delta variant has thrown a wrench into an otherwise successful mitigation plan,” one parent told Hillsborough school board members during public comment.

“How can this school district operate in defiance of commonsense, simple safety precautions?” asked another speaker.

Many in support of a mask mandate said their arguments were bolstered by the CDC’s updated guidance, while others cited similar recommendations recently issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has made it clear he does not support mask requirements in schools, promising to challenge an attempt, even suggesting the possibility of calling a special legislative session to pre-empt any mandates.

Superintendents for both Hillsborough and Pinellas schools said during their respective board meetings Tuesday night the districts intend to keep mask-wearing voluntary.

"I still believe it's a parent choice,” said Hillsborough Superintendent Addison David. “I don't want to come out and take a stance and then here we are in a fight with Tallahassee."

Pinellas Superintendent Michael Grego similarly said it should be left to parents to choose.

"This board has sunsetted any kind of mask requirement and we're continuing to reinforce that it's optional.”

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