Pasco schools might make masks voluntary in late April

The announcement comes after county government ended its mask mandate on Monday.

Tampa Bay Times | by Jeffrey S. Solochek | April 6, 2021

Wearing masks could soon become voluntary in Pasco County schools.

A day after the county government rescinded its mask order, school superintendent Kurt Browning announced his plan to shift to a voluntary mask rule on or near April 26.

That date coincides with the end of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order declaring a state of emergency over the pandemic. Browning stressed that his decision will depend on whatever DeSantis does at that time.

“Once the order is lifted, masks will be optional,” Browning told his School Board during its Tuesday morning meeting.

He suggested that he would have no other choice.

“I don’t have the authority to extend the mask mandate without the governor’s order,” Browning said.

The region’s other school districts, in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Hernando counties, have not said whether their mask mandates will end any time soon.

Browning’s messaging sounded a different note than on Monday, when he issued a statement immediately after the Pasco County Commission ended its mask requirement. The statement made clear that the school district was not following suit.

“I cannot in good conscience abandon our health and safety protocols at this time,” the statement said. “Our protocols have helped to prevent, and certainly reduce, the spread of COVID-19 among our students and staff.”

Browning explained that he did not want anyone to confuse the county government’s direction with that of the school district, which operates independently of the county.

Feedback on social media to the district’s initial announcement was mixed, with many parents who oppose masks demanding that the schools go along with the county government.

A few residents attended the board’s meeting Tuesday to reiterate their position opposing masks. They tempered their comments to reflect Browning’s modified stance.

“I was going to be a little bit more vocal … but the superintendent explained what his plan is,” said anti-mask activist Jonathon Riches.

He called mask mandates unconstitutional and potentially harmful to children, and asked, “What if the governor doesn’t lift this state of emergency?”

If that’s the case, Browning said, the requirement could extend through the end of the school year.

Fellow activist Cathy Julian also called on the board to stop requiring masks, which she referred to as “muzzles.”

“Why are we torturing our students?” Julian asked the board.

In his comments, Browning noted that the district has held clinics to get thousands of employees vaccinated, and will continue to do all it can to protect the health and safety of students and staff. He added that he does not like to wear a mask, but puts one on to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

He reiterated that any plan to make masks optional depends on the governor’s action. “I don’t know what he’s going to do,” Browning said.

So far, DeSantis has extended the order six times since first issuing it in March 2020.

Like other districts, Pasco schools saw a high in January of reported coronavirus cases from students and staff, with weekly totals hovering in the neighborhood of 200. Schools have seen a gradual decline in cases since then.

Photo: At Gulf High School in New Port Richey, students walk to school before the start of classes in August. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

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