Polk County school board members votes to end face coverings policy for fall

The new Polk County school board voted Tuesday to end the district's mask mandate, becoming the latest school system in Tampa Bay to do so.

The new board policy will make masks optional for all students, while incoming Superintendent Jeff Heid will create a parallel policy for teachers and staff.

"As that guidance has changed, the practices in the schools have changed. And here we are today with the recommendation to lift the face-covering requirements for students in schools. Hallelujah," Polk School Board Attorney Wes Bridges during an afternoon workshop during which district leaders ironed out the policy's language.

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This was the first major issue for Heid, who is in a transition period as he takes over for outgoing Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd.

Heid said he wants the district to be prepared for any future pandemics by keeping open the option of reinstituting the policy during future viral outbreaks.

"That, at times, could constitute the closure of a classroom or even a closure of a school building. That...is the instance where masks might have to be implemented for a short period of time," Heid said. "We've never mandated masks simply because of a personal interest or a personal bias. It is largely, if not, entirely driven based on local or federal recommendations."

The policy change comes as the district is facing a lawsuit filed by dozens of parents and students seeking to force an end to the face-covering requirement.

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"We just need no policy. We need all the teachers to know there is no policy. We're back to normal," said Jeff Childers, the attorney representing the families who filed suit, adding if mask requirements are gone then his clients would consider ending the lawsuit. "I know that my 46 plaintiffs would like nothing better than to dismiss this lawsuit and if the school board does the right thing and votes to rescind the policy for now, then they'll dismiss the lawsuit."

The Polk Education Association, which represents teachers and staff, has said it wants the district to follow the science and CDC guidelines on masks. President Stephanie Yocum recently told FOX 13 by August plenty of people will have had the chance to get the COVID-19 vaccine and her organization would support ending the requirement for face coverings.