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Masks now optional at Tampa Bay area schools; health experts say change was premature

Hillsborough and Sarasota County school leaders voted to amend masking rules Tuesday night.

TAMPA, Fla — The Hillsborough and Sarasota County school boards voted to amend their mask mandates after COVID-19 cases dropped, but health experts warn the threat of the coronavirus remains.  

“If it was up to me, I’d like to see us continue the mask mandate until all school-aged children can be vaccinated,” Dr. Joe Perno, VP of medical affairs at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, said.

Both school districts voted to amend masking rules Tuesday night.

In Hillsborough County, school board members dropped requirements needed for parents to opt their students out of mask-wearing. The change takes effect Thursday.

School board members in Sarasota County voted unanimously to repeal their mandate regardless of whether COVID-19 cases go above the district's 10 percent positivity rate threshold. Changes to the masking policy first took effect Sept. 27 when cases first dropped.

Dr. Jill Roberts, USF associate professor, noted a vaccine may soon be eligible for children ages 5-11.

"It was a premature decision to do this," Dr. Jill Roberts, USF associate professor, said. "To get this close and then take away one of our only mitigation measures before we reach it, it doesn't really make a lot of sense."

Perno said while COVID-19 cases are trending in the right direction, it may be too premature to lift mask mandates. He also said vaccination rates among eligible minors still need to be higher.

“We have a very vulnerable population that’s not eligible for the vaccine,” Perno said. “Until those children have that protection, we need to protect them and the best way to do that is to have universal masking indoors.”

Roberts added keeping masks would also be effective in preventing cases of the flu as we reach influenza season.

Other areas outside of Florida are calling for schools to reinstate their mandates after cases dropped. In Mississippi, the chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics wrote a letter to school leadership, teachers, and parents. Members urged them to continue enforcing masking after schools relaxed them due to fewer cases being reported.

The letter referred to three pediatric deaths from COVID-19 during the month of September – a total of six deaths since the end of July, according to the letter.

The recent changes in Hillsborough and Sarasota schools now make them compliant with state’s ruling on masks; but it’s no guarantee funds will still not be withheld by the governor.

The State Board of Education will have a hearing Thursday, Oct. 7, to review whether members should withhold state funds from 11 school districts that violated state law, including Hillsborough and Sarasota county schools.