Hillsborough County students will no longer need to provide a medical certificate to opt-out of the district’s mask mandate — a change the county School Board approved Tuesday night amid a lawsuit and pressure from the state.
Starting Thursday, parents will instead have the choice to complete an opt-out form, relaxing the district’s mask mandate and putting the district in compliance with state orders, School Board attorney Jim Porter said.
The change is timely.
The State Board of Education has an emergency meeting Thursday to talk masks and COVID-19. Eleven school districts’ compliance with the state’s emergency rules on COVID-19 policies, including Hillsborough, will be discussed at that hearing. But with the recent change, Superintendent Addison Davis hopes the district may be in the clear.
“I can tell you that where we are in our financial situation, we need every dollar and every cent that we can get,” Davis said.
The School Board voted 6-1 to scrap the medical exemption requirement, with first-term Board member Jessica Vaughn dissenting. Vaughn slammed state leadership over their threat to withhold funding from districts that opposed orders banning school mask mandates, saying they are “starving out and destroying public education.”
“It’s kind of difficult if we don’t get funding. We can’t be as competitive, we can’t offer as much support in our schools, we can’t have that technology people (need), it’s just reciprocal,” Vaughn said.
The Board also voted 5-2 to go back to the opt-out system, which was faced with more contention. School Board members Stacy Hahn and Melissa Snively voted against the form, arguing it was difficult for staff to enforce, causing them to feel like “mask police.”
Districtwide COVID-19 case numbers have been on the decline in September after peaking on Aug. 23 with 601 student cases. The district reported a 54% decrease in student cases from Aug. 23.
“The data suggests the requirement is working, but the board believes more time is needed to ensure the ongoing health, safety, and welfare of students, teachers, and staff,” a press release from the district reads.
The move also comes after 39 parents filed a joint lawsuit against the district for the medical opt-out policy. The parents in the suit argue that by maintaining a policy that only allows for a medical opt-out to the district’s mandatory mask policy, the school district is violating the Parents’ Bill of Rights Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law in June. The plaintiffs also cite DeSantis’ executive order banning school districts from implementing mask mandates without a non-medical opt-out.