Hillsborough still tracking mask opt-outs as students return to school

As students headed back to Hillsborough schools Tuesday morning, most were donning accessories their generation knows all too well: Masks.

"With all of the stuff going on, I don’t think we have a choice other than to wear a mask and keep our kids and teachers safe," offered mother Emmanuella Uchegbu.

But it’s not for everyone. Superintendent Addison Davis says more than 26,600 students have opted out of their mask policy as of Tuesday afternoon, up from 16,500 the day before.

"That's around 14 percent of our student body that we serve in district magnet schools," Davis said. "We know that that number is going to creep up every single day as we get through this week."

The district will send principals and teachers daily updates on which of their students submitted the "opt out" form. But if they see a child who isn’t on their list without a mask, they won’t enforce the mandate.

Kids wear masks as they return to school in Hillsborough County in August of 2021.

"If a child doesn't have a mask, we're assuming that they are opting out," Davis said. "We're going to, in this first week, try to have a touch point with all of our parents from a teacher in a school with perspective to make sure to validate their stance and then that way that we're on the same page. So we want to respect the choice of our parents."

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Of the more 180,000 students in the district, 3,000 are enrolled in Hillsborough Virtual School. That’s down from the 3,300 enrolled at the end of the 2020-2021 school year. But more than 98 percent, like Uchegbu’s daughter Chizara, are back at brick and mortar.

"I’m just excited that she’s excited to be in school," Uchegbu added. "She’s never been to any school, any daycare, or things like that. I’m just so glad she’s happy to be in school."