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Hillsborough County School Board approves 30-day mask mandate requiring a doctor's note to opt out

The new mandate will go into effect on Aug. 19.

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — The Hillsborough County School Board voted 5-2 to temporarily enforce a stricter mask mandate across the district on Wednesday during an emergency COVID meeting.

Beginning Aug. 19, students, teachers and staff will be required to mask up for 30 days with an opt-out available to students for medical reasons as long as they submit a doctor's note.

"We must act and act now," Chair Lynn Gray said.

The board's decision did not fall in line with Superintendent Addison Davis' recommendation to leave the school district's current process in place. The State Board of Education's response to two other state school districts that chose to defy the governor's ban played a role in his recommendation saying, removal of funds is something Hillsborough Schools "cannot withstand."

More than 80 parents, family members and even some healthcare workers addressed the school board on both sides of the aisle of the mask debate. Ways to best mitigate against the spread of COVID-19 and the impact the virus is having on the school district were also among topics discussed by the school board.

In the end, the board said its decision came down to protecting kids in schools during the coronavirus pandemic.

In response to the school district's decision, a spokesperson for Gov. Ron DeSantis said the school board's mask mandate infringed on parents' rights to make health decisions for their children.

"No politician is above the law, even the HCPS school board members. It is disappointing that HCPS school board chose to change their mask policy, which had previously protected the freedom for parents to opt their kids out, in compliance with Florida law," the governor's press secretary, Christina Pushaw, wrote.

RELATED: Florida education commissioner directed to determine fate of 2 school districts for defying Gov. DeSantis' mask mandate ban

As of Wednesday, 10,384 out of 213,491 students are currently quarantined or in isolation. Some 338 out of 23,596 employees are also reported to be either in isolation or quarantine. 

"Isolation refers to individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 while quarantine refers to those who have had close contact with a positive case," the school district wrote.

Prior to today's meeting, Hillsborough County Schools had a mask mandate for students with the option for parents to opt their child out. To opt-out, parents had to fill out an online form for each student. 

A school spokesperson said to enforce mask use, under the governor's executive order, the schools reach out to parents if students are not wearing their masks and do not have an opt-out on file. Then, it's left to parents to discuss the matter with their child.

RELATED: Here's how to track reported COVID-19 cases at Tampa Bay area school districts

Of the roughly 194,000 Hillsborough County Schools students, 27,559 students have been opted out of the mask mandate by their parents as of Aug. 11, district spokesperson Erin Maloney said. It's unclear at this time how many current opt-outs will stand under the new requirements.

The battle over students wearing masks in the classroom began in late July when Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order preventing schools from issuing mask mandates for students. 

Desantis said school districts that defy the order could lose school funding, his office later clarifying it would be the equivalent of the superintendent's salary.

The Biden Administration responded to the governor's decision with a letter stating it would support school boards in Florida that are defying his order to prohibit mask-wearing mandates.

"Any threat by Florida to withhold salaries from superintendents and school board members who are working to protect students and educators (or to levy other financial penalties) can be addressed using (federal virus relief) funds at the sole and complete discretion of Florida school districts," Education Secretary Miguel Cardona wrote

RELATED: Back-to-school safety checklist for parents concerned about COVID-19 and the delta varian

Following DeSantis' order, the Florida Department of Health issued an emergency rule that says students may wear a mask in the classroom, but schools must allow parents the option to opt-out of any face-covering requirements for students.

The Florida Department of Education then met days before the new school year was set to begin and approved changes to both the student attendance policy and the Hope Scholarship. The latter now allows students to transfer schools if they experience "COVID-19 harassment" or discrimination from any schools' COVID-19 safety protocols or policies.

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