Hillsborough County unveils back-to-school safety plans as students, teachers head back to class amid pandemic

Five days after the governor’s executive order barring school mask mandates, Hillsborough County’s superintendent says he’s not defying it.

"It’s been very clear there are financial implications that will hurt school districts," said Addison Davis.

And he isn’t going to take that chance and risk losing funds.

"We’re not in a situation where we can give any dollar, any cent away," he said.

When the start of the 2021-2022 school year begins August 10, masks for employees and students will be optional, but they’re encouraging everyone, including those 11 and under who aren’t eligible to get the vaccine, to wear them.

"As a leader, I will stand with them, and make certain, this is a strong recommendation within this community," Davis said.

RELATED: Some Florida school districts look to move forward with masks, despite governor's order

In addition to increased monitoring and cleaning protocols, one-way lanes are encouraged for walking in the hallways, numerous hand-washing stations are in place, and teachers – not students – will be switching classes throughout the day. Students are also discouraged from gathering in the hallways.

Initially, Davis said if a student comes into contact with the virus, based on whether it’s direct or indirect contact, they’ll have to quarantine seven days. After day six, they can take a COVID test. On Thursday morning, the school district clarified to say:

Individuals determined to be close contacts will quarantine for 10 days if they remain symptom free per CDC and FLDOH recommendations OR 7 days if a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test on day 6 or later is negative and they remain symptom free. Vaccinated people and those who have tested positive in the last 90 days do not need to quarantine.

Davis believes this change will help allow students to remain in school as much as possible.

"The majority of our students who were quarantined last year were not deemed positive with COVID, so there was a lot of days missed for students who could be in front of our teachers where we needed them the most," he said.

PREVIOUS: Masks optional, e-learning dropped in Hillsborough schools

Gayle Gasque’s 18-year-old daughter Sierra wasn’t in front of teachers last year – not because she was quarantining, but because she was involved in e-learning.

A special needs student, Gasque says her daughter excelled on e-learning, and is frustrated it’s no longer an option.

"She doesn’t do well in the brick-and-mortar environment at all," she said. "She basically has been falling through the cracks since about fourth grade."

Sierra tells FOX 13 she suffers from high anxiety and is diagnosed with autism and Asperger syndrome. Being in a school environment, she says she was bullied by her classmates and preferred learning from home.

"I loved e-learning," she said. "It calmed my anxiety down, I didn’t have anyone pick on me or the teachers, it made me like, I was so happy because I was calm and didn’t have to go to school."

RELATED: Orange County Public Schools to require masks for employees

When pressed on the disappearance of e-learning, Davis said, it was simply too costly.

"We just can’t afford it," he said. "Because you have multiple facets, you have e-learning, you have brick and mortar, you have Hillsborough virtual. And it’s just hard to do. We had classes, and the imbalances were causing a number of problems. You had seven students in an e-learning class, and 27 in a brick-and-mortar class."

At one point, he says, with all of the duties staff needed to keep up with across all models of learning, it just became too difficult to do, and something had to give. To offset the changes, the district’s Virtual K-12 program was rebranded this year.

"That would be a great solution for their learner to be successful," he said. "Indirectly, it does the same thing."

But Gasque begs to differ.

"You have no idea what you’re doing to students with disabilities that want to take their schooling online," she said in a plea to Davis. "Please allow these students to go online and take classes – offer it to them right now, not later this year."


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