Students returning to Hillsborough County schools Thursday with new mask requirement

Despite the understanding they could be facing punishment by the state, the Hillsborough County School Board voted to defy Governor Ron DeSantis' ban on mask mandates as they instituted a requirement that students wear masks for 30 days.

Only a doctor's note can relieve them of the requirement.

"With the constant state overreach with the state of Florida and the Department of Education, and whether we have a right to make a decision to keep our district safe, is concerning," said board member Jessica Vaughn, who voted in support of the mandate.

The vote was 5-2 on the conviction that a 30-day requirement for masks in schools would be the best measure in stopping COVID-19 from spreading in school buildings, especially elementary and middle schools, where most students are not vaccinated. 

As of Thursday morning, there were 12,312 students and staff – mostly students – who were either COVID-positive or in quarantine. 

PREVIOUS: With 10,000 students stuck home, Hillsborough School Board votes to mandate masks

Hillsborough student and staff COVID-19 cases, as of 7 a.m. Thursday.

"It is really important we look at the whole picture, and stop making this political, and we really think about what is best for kids," said board member Nadia Combs.

The state Board of Education found Tuesday that Broward and Alachua counties violated the governor's ‘no mask mandate' rule. 

Punishments have been threatened, including docking board member pay or even removal of elected officials who vote to violate that rule. 

Wednesday in West Palm, the governor went further in questioning district practices.

"I don't think to say anyone who was in a hallway or in a classroom, that even if they are healthy, should be sent home," said Gov. Ron DeSantis. "I think quarantining healthy kids deprives these kids of an ability to get an education."

Wednesday evening, the governor's office issued a statement, saying, "Forced masking of schoolchildren infringes upon parents’ rights to make health and educational decisions for their own children. No politician is above the law, even the HCPS school board members. It is disappointing that [the] HCPS school board chose to change their mask policy, which had previously protected the freedom for parents to opt their kids out, in compliance with Florida law."

RELATED: Florida parents push back against state's attempt to dismiss lawsuit challenging ban on school mask mandates

Meanwhile, Hillsborough County school board members heard from parents on many sides of the issue and said they are prepared for repercussions from the state as well as from their constituents.

"There will be, no doubt, aftershocks. Some retaliation. Disappointment. Reactionary behaviors," said board chair Lynn Gray. "[But] we cannot sustain the plethora of our children who are being quarantined. They are not getting an education. Two weeks out of a month is not an education."

Under current guidelines, if two students are wearing a mask and are not socially distanced, and one of them later tests positive for COVID-19, the other student would not have to be quarantined.

One of two ‘no’ votes on the issue was Melissa Snively, who pointed to the governor's order and potential repercussions for her decision.

"We are going to feel the repercussions from the Department of Education," she said. "Do we all agree with what has been pushed down to our school board level? Not necessarily. But there is an executive order."

The order goes into effect Thursday. Almost 30,000 of 185,000 students had already gotten a parent opt-out, but without a doctor's note, they will be asked to mask up.

Miami Dade also voted Wednesday to institute a mask mandate, meaning the three biggest districts in the state have now defied the governor's orders.