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Here's where Tampa Bay area schools stand on face masks for next year

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently recommended universal mask wearing for all students regardless of vaccination status.

TAMPA, Fla. — For the third straight school year, parents and medical experts are debating the best and safest way for the children of America to get an education as the global pandemic persists.

In March of 2020, all students in Florida were sent home, forced to complete their education via the internet. By August of 2020, most all students in the Tampa Bay region had a choice between learning in-person while wearing a mandated face mask or learning remotely through virtual classes.

Now, with the 2021-2022 school year set to begin next month in Florida, districts across the region have decided to make mask wearing optional.

RELATED: Hillsborough County Public Schools makes masks optional, won't offer eLearning next year

Florida Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent a letter to superintendents in April of 2021 asking them to enact voluntary face mask policies for the 2021-2022 school year.

On Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics released new guidance on how to return to the classroom safely. Among its top recommendations are potentially requiring COVID-19 vaccines and vaccine proof, and masks for anyone over the age of two, including those who are fully vaccinated.

The recommendation contradicts those of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which updated its recommendations earlier this month to say that vaccinated students and staff don't need to wear masks in school. The CDC also isn't advising schools to require shots for teachers and vaccine-eligible students.

RELATED: All students should wear masks in school this fall, top pediatrics group says

The varying schools of thought on the matter has trickled down to families across Florida.

Michele Benoist, a parent in Odessa, Florida has been opposed to face masks in school throughout the pandemic. She believes parents should choose. 

"As parents, let us decide what’s best for our children. We know them most. Our doctors, our scientists, they don’t know our children. Give us the information, let us look through the information, and let us decide. That’s my stance," said Benoist.

Allison Oakes, a mom of three in Tampa feels differently. Oakes said her kids didn't mind the mask at all, and it made her more comfortable sending her kids to the classroom.

Making them optional leaves her worried for her youngest who can't yet be vaccinated.

Oakes said, "What if she does contract COVID? What if she’s asymptomatic and she passes it to a child in her class who gives it to a parent or a grandparent and what if that parent or grandparent for whatever reason, couldn’t be vaccinated or didn’t get the vaccination?"

Given the new guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics, 10 Tampa Bay reached out to school districts in the area about mask policies for the 2021-2022 school year.

HILLSBOROUGH:

We are in continual contact with our health partners regarding the impact COVID-19 is having on our community, and will continue to do so prior to the start of the academic year. At this time, face coverings remain optional. 

We will continue COVID-19 protocols at the start of the new academic year including practicing social distancing, providing PPE for use including sanitation stations in all classrooms, and directional signage in hallways for controlled movement. Each school will continue to have a COVID Lead as well, which is a staff member dedicated to guiding our protocols including contact tracing and quarantines.

POLK:

Polk County Public Schools will have a mask-optional policy for students and staff this year (2021-22).

PINELLAS:

Pinellas County Schools continues to work closely with its group of medical experts and DOH-Pinellas reviewing safety protocols.  At this time, masks/face coverings are optional for students, staff and visitors but strongly encouraged and recommended indoors. Any change to the face covering policy would require School Board action. The same layered mitigation strategies/safety protocols used during the 2020-2021 school year will remain such as enhanced cleaning and disinfecting protocols in classrooms and common areas, social distancing to the greatest extent possible, hand sanitizers in classrooms, and upgraded ventilation/air filtration systems established last fall. We also encourage (not mandate) everyone eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

PASCO:

At this time, we have not changed our position that masks are optional in our schools and workplaces.

Having said that, we are aware of the updates to the CDC recommendations and are in close contact with the Pasco Department of Health related to the local data.

MANATEE

On May 28, 2021, the School Board of Manatee County voted to repeal the portion of Board Policy 8450 that mandated employees, students and visitors to wear face masks in district facilities, at school district events and in school district vehicles. Face masks are OPTIONAL across the school district.

SARASOTA

Our district currently has an optional face mask policy that will last until the end of this school year (June 2022). It was just approved by the School Board at their last meeting (July 13th).

At this time, there are no plans to change the policy. The policy could change in the future, of course, but the Board would have to have a discussion first about any changes & then vote, all of which must take place publicly at a Board meeting.

RELATED: Johns Hopkins reports uptick in COVID hospitalizations of children

RELATED: All students should wear masks in school this fall, top pediatrics group says

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