Masks optional, e-learning dropped in Hillsborough schools

In two big decisions announced Friday, Hillsborough County schools say face coverings will no longer be required for students and staff, while any parents who want their kids to continue remote learning next year will have one less option.

"Considering the decrease in COVID rates and the increase in vaccinations, the district is moving toward a more normal way of work," schools spokesperson Tanya Arja explained in a release announcing the changes.

The masks-optional rule will take effect Monday, June 7, in time for summer school classes, and continue into the next school year. 

The district also plans to drop the e-learning option, in which students could remain enrolled in their local school and attend local classes via videoconference.

Virtual schooling is similar to e-learning in that classes are conducted remotely, but students must enroll separately in the program and do not continue to attend a neighborhood school.

According to Arja, the county’s school principals were surveyed about their preference for next year’s learning options. Out of 198 responses, 186 principals said face-to-face instruction and virtual schooling were the best options for their students. 

E-learning was plagued with technical problems since the early days of the pandemic, even after school resumed in the fall.

The district says they are reaching out to e-learning families to see which they will choose for the fall. The last day to enroll in the county’s virtual school is July 11.

The state of Florida also offers a separate virtual school program.

RELATED: Florida COVID-19 hospitalizations at lowest point in more than a year

Meanwhile, the district says other COVID-19 protocols, like cleaning and monitoring, will remain in place.

"Vaccination has proven to be highly effective in preventing infection, allowing for the relaxation of the mitigation efforts that were needed over the past year. We strongly encourage those who have children 12 years old and older to get the COVID-19 vaccine," offered Dr. Douglas Holt of the Dept. of Health Hillsborough County. "Although COVID-19 in children in usually milder than in adults, some kids can get very sick and have complications or long-lasting symptoms that affect their health and well-being. With more people getting vaccinated there will be fewer overall infections among the population and lessen the chance of dangerous coronavirus variants emerging."