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Hillsborough County Schools leaders institute mask mandate — kind of

Hillsborough County Schools leaders will require students to cover their faces unless their parents opt out. Masks are highly-recommended but optional for employees.

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — Just days before the new school year, Hillsborough County Schools leaders say they have changed the district’s mask policy.

A type of mask mandate will now be in place ahead of next week’s first day of school. It will remain in place from Aug. 10 through at least Sept. 3.

District leaders say parents will have the opportunity to sign a form for their children to opt-out of the new policy.

"While the outcome may be the same whether we make face coverings optional or required with an opt-out, we believe this decision continues to illustrate that Hillsborough County Public Schools takes public safety seriously. We want to ensure we are doing all we can to help community-wide efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19," a statement Saturday from Superintendent Addison Davis read in part.

This comes after Hillsborough County Schools previously said Friday it would “strongly recommend” and not mandate masks for in-person learners this school year.

The school district had originally set a special meeting for Monday to discuss Gov. DeSantis’ executive order banning mask mandates in schools and the recent emergency rules adopted by the Florida Department of Education. In light of Saturday's announcement, the meeting has been canceled.

One of those rules allows parents to transfer their kids out of school if they face “COVID-19 harassment,” such as being required to wear masks.

The DOE's decision falls in line with DeSantis' executive order ensuring parents can choose if their kids wear a mask or not. Part of that order includes the Florida Commissioner of Education being able to pursue all legal means to ensure compliance from school districts, including withholding state funds from non-compliant school boards.

Hillsborough County Schools joins three other school districts in Florida that are defying Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order, risking possible funding loss.

While face masks are "highly recommended" for employees, they will not be mandated.

"Parents will receive an email with the HCPS Mask Opt Out Form," the statement read in part. "The only parents who should fill out the form are those who do not want their child to wear a mask. Parents must complete a form for each child."

Earlier this week Superintendent Addison Davis said Hillsborough Schools wouldn’t be mandating masks because the district couldn’t afford to lose funding, since it just narrowly escaped a financial takeover by the state. 

When Davis spoke with 10 Tampa Bay Saturday he said that because parents have the option to opt their children out of the mask policy, the school district will not be in danger of losing funding. 

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

RELATED: Florida DOE passes emergency rule allowing children to transfer schools due to 'COVID-19 harassment'

RELATED: Attorneys file lawsuit challenging DeSantis' ban on mask mandates in schools

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