After the challenge that was 2020, Pinellas County Schools were back in session on Wednesday, August 11. While the pandemic isn’t over, the mask mandate is, and students at schools across the county could be seen in various stages of mask-wearing – some firmly worn, some askew and many tucked away in the bottom of backpacks or nonexistent.
Per the school board’s decision, PCS is not enforcing a mask mandate, instead leaving the decision up to students – many of whom are unvaccinated – and parents for the 2021-22 school year amidst a massive surge in COVID-19 cases sparked by the Delta variant. Masks are also optional for PCS teachers, staff and visitors.
Unlike neighboring school district, Hillsborough County, students need no “opt out” forms to leave a mask at home, a decision that prompted a rally of parents and healthcare professionals outside Pinellas County School’s district office two days before school started.
As was the case in 2020, parents and students do have multiple “learning options” this year – in-person attendance, and the online options of MyPCS Online and Pinellas Virtual School, which has been available for several years, according to PCS.
“Pinellas County Schools will follow the wellness protocols outlined in the Florida Department of Health Emergency Rule 64DER21-12, issued August 6, 2021, by Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees,” reads the Pinellas County School District website. “This applies to all students, staff and visitors.”
PCS “strongly” recommends masks, handwashing and “stay at home when sick” guidelines.
Children under the age of 12 cannot currently receive the vaccine, and Pinellas COVID cases are at an all-time high, according to the New York Times COVID-19 Tracker.
During the first week of school, PCS reported an average of 917 coronavirus cases.
“I’d say half and half wear their masks, but it’s only the second day back,” said Boca Ciega High School teacher Matt Gudorf. “With the numbers the way they are, I’m a little worried about our team getting COVID.”
Gudorf, who coaches football at BCHS, remembers last year’s shaky season.
“A couple games were canceled due to other teams players being out with COVID,” Gudorf said. “I’m interested to see how this year pans out.”
The first day of school on August 11 brought plenty of strong opinions about the mask mandate – or lack thereof.
Antwan Glasper, parent to Gulfport Montessori Elementary School student Joaquin, makes sure his son is equipped with protective health measures for school.
“My son is wearing a mask, but you don’t know just how many people are out here walking around unvaccinated,” Glasper said at the school’s pickup area. “He has a bookbag full of masks.”
Fourth grade teacher and parent at the same school, Shantel Ferro, disagrees.
“I’m happy because they can breathe again,” Ferro said on the first day. “It’s hard to teach through a mask.”
Ferro knows some youth struggle with asthma, and believes the option gives students the choice to prioritize different aspects of their health.
Find more information at pcsb.org/covid19.