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Hillsborough County Schools navigates new mask policy

Just days before school began, Hillsborough County Schools announced a new mask requirement for students. But, enforcing it can be tricky.

TAMPA, Fla. — Over the weekend, Hillsborough County Schools announced a mask policy for students with the option for parents to opt their child out. To opt out, parents must fill out an online form for each student. 

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.

When asked how the schools were tracking opt-outs and enforcing mask use, Maloney said, under the governor's executive order, the schools will reach out to parents if students are not wearing their masks and do not have an opt-out on file. 

Thus, enforcing the mask rules is complicated for schools.

RELATED: Hillsborough County Schools will 'strongly recommend' masks this year

On July 30, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order that banned public schools from implementing mask mandates. In his executive order, he claimed, "forcing children to wear masks could inhibit breathing, lead to the collection of dangerous impurities including bacteria, parasites, fungi, and other contaminants, and adversely affect communications in the classroom and student performance; and there is no statistically significant evidence to suggest that counties with mask requirements have fared any better than those without mask requirements during the 2020-2021 school year."

The governor's order puts him at odds with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends teachers, staff and students to mask up regardless of vaccination status. 

Districts that do not abide by the governor's executive order risk losing state funding. Hillsborough County Schools' Superintendent Addison Davis said because the mask requirement has an opt-out option, it is in compliance with the order. 

Schools can choose to reach out to parents if a student who did not opt-out of the mask policy is not wearing a mask. Then, it's left to parents to discuss the matter with their child.

If a student feels he or she has been harassed over a COVID-19 or mask-related issue, that student can then apply for a Hope Scholarship which would cover a portion or all of the tuition costs for a private school, according to Maloney. 

To be considered applicable for the Hope Scholarship, students do not need to prove harassment took place. 

For parents concerned over rising COVID-19 numbers as students return to classes, some feel the option to opt-out and the lack of in-school enforcement makes the mandate less impactful.

"That's like saying, do it if you want," said Ivette Diaz. "That's not a mandate."

Diaz's daughter is a Hillsborough County Schools student and has an immunocompromising condition. Diaz opted to take the virtual learning route this year for her daughter Andrea's safety.

"I don't think she can learn safely in the school without everyone wearing a mask," said Diaz.

Beatriz Azula has a 5th grader in Hillsborough County Schools. Her 10-year-old son is too young for a vaccine. She said she gave him to option on whether or not to wear a mask this school year.

"Yes, and it's his choice," said Azula. "I asked him, and he told me, I want to wear the mask. He saw everything going on and he wanted to take care of himself."

Azula said she was glad he chose to mask up, concerned over if someone her son's age contracted COVID-19.

"But I don't know how my kids are going to react," said Azula. "So I need to take care of his life, his health! I'm a parent and that's my priority, to take care of my child."