Pasco school board approves emergency mask mandate

Masks will be required when riding school buses and while on campus when classes expect to begin Aug. 24. The Pasco County School Board unanimously approved an emergency rule mandating face coverings at its July 28 meeting.

The Pasco County School Board unanimously approved the motion to require face coverings to be worn by almost all students, teachers and staff members when schools reopen next month.

Superintendent Kurt Browning announced the emergency rule with an online video July 14 and the School Board voted 5-0 in favor during the July 28 telephonic meeting.

Attached to the July 28 meeting agenda is an 11-page document providing details about instituting the emergency rule when classes expect to resume Aug. 24. 

As of July 29, the school district’s received feedback from 88.9 percent of its students as to how they wish to be educated this year. The traditional option continues to be the most popular choice, with 40,333 students (66.3 percent) electing to return to class in-person. Another 17,316 students (28.5 percent) chose mySchool Online and 3,144 students (5.2 percent) chose the virtual Pasco eSchool option.

According to an email from Pasco Schools Public Information Officer Stephen Hegarty, parents and students may still change their minds, meaning the numbers will continue to change leading up to the first day of school. For families who do not declare a choice, students will be expected to return to class in the traditional fashion.

The document includes information about the district’s broad interpretation of face coverings, allowing people on campus to wear masks, scarfs, bandannas, fishing buffs and “other items made of a suitable and safe material that will cover the wearer’s nose and mouth.”

There are limited exceptions to the mandate, as well. Individuals with a medical or mental health condition that impacts their ability to wear a face covering will be handled on a case-by-case basis and medical documentation will need to be provided.

School Board member Megan Harding praised Browning for initiating the emergency rule and requested that more information be provided to teachers on how to deal with certain situations in the classroom.

“The one thing I still ask we provide our teachers in school are some ways we can handle situations where students may need a mask break,” Harding said, while then calling on parents and guardians to help with teaching children what’s going to be required of them once they return to school. “I truly believe that this will be very important as many of our students will be returning with a lot of stressors.”

According to the emergency rule document, masks will be required by all “while on school property and/or engaged in school activities,” as well as when riding buses. Schools will also stress social distancing and limit students from gathering in large groups in close proximity. In past meetings, the board discussed instances when students will be able to remove masks, such as during lunch or when alone in a room.

Board Chair Colleen Beaudoin reminded those in virtual attendance that the emergency rule is put in place to promote safety among everyone on school campuses during the COVID-19 pandemic and that it will not be in place permanently.

“Please keep in mind that this is temporary,” Beaudoin said. “If we can start with this in place and the public follows CDC guidelines outside of school, then we can help drive down the COVID numbers and lift this emergency rule.

“I know that our teachers, staff and families are concerned about the risk of contracting COVID. We’re doing everything we can within the parameters we’re given to mitigate the risk when school starts.”

The emergency rule document states that Browning may modify it “to align efforts and actions with the prevailing conditions and local circumstances relative to COVID-19.”

Budget passes first reading

Prior to the mask discussion, School Board members unanimously approved the district’s tentative millage rate and budget for fiscal year 2020-2021.

According to Browning, the tentative budget is almost $1.5 billion and the proposed millage rate is 5.922.

The millage rate is 0.42 percent more than the roll-back rate and 0.179 mills lower than last fiscal year’s rate. Browning stated that a home valued at $175,000, after deducting the $25,000 homestead exemption, would pay $27.85 less this year.

The nearly $1.5 billion budget is greater than last year’s by more than $102 million. Included is a general operating budget of $699 million and a capital budget of $415 million.

Browning said the proposed budget includes $4.7 million to implement the district’s teacher salary increase allocation. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill in June that provided $500 million to the state’s school districts specifically aimed at raising teacher pay. Browning said the added funds would increase the minimum base salary for full-time classroom teachers to approximately $45,000 per year, which is shy of the minimum $47,500 figure touted by the governor in June.

The proposed $415 million capital budget includes large projects such as the construction of Starkey Ranch K-8 in Odessa and the Kirkland Ranch Academy of Innovation, a charter school to be built in Wesley Chapel. Funding also exists for major renovations at Northwest Elementary in Hudson, James M. Marlowe Elementary in New Port Richey and Zephyrhills High.

The final public budget hearing will be at 6 p.m., Sept. 15. It is scheduled to take place in-person at the district board room in Land O’ Lakes.