Hernando School Board lifts mask mandate

To applause from many in the audience, the Hernando County School Board on Tuesday, Oct. 26, ended the mandatory mask mandate with parental opt-outs.

BROOKSVILLE — To applause from many in the audience, the Hernando County School Board on Tuesday, Oct. 26, ended the mandatory mask mandate with parental opt-outs.

They also ended the mask mandate for staff and visitors to school buildings.

“OK, take ’em off,” said School Board member Jimmy Lodato, and people in the audience did that, though board members and most staff members in attendance kept their masks on.

For the week of Oct. 18, the school district reported eight students and two staff members testing positive for COVID-19.

When the mask mandate had been started, there were more than 350 students per week testing positive, with 150 to 170 staff per week. “Those numbers have gone down and stayed down,” he said.

Board chairwoman Linda Prescott said that research showed that schools that implemented a mask mandate had fewer COVID cases and deaths than districts that did not.

“I believe that what we have done has helped keep our numbers down,” she said.

School Superintendent John Stratton said he hoped that the positive trend would continue, recommended that the mask mandate be removed but that if more students and staffers test positive the board could look at the mask mandate again.

The vote was 5-0.

During public comment, the board was attacked numerous times for implementing the mask mandate at all. Board member Kay Hatch reminded the audience, “I would just like our parents and community to know that this board made a commitment to review the data every time we’ve met, talked about it and discussed it, and we made promises to do this, and we have kept our promises.”

Getting on the bus

The board held a long discussion on the situation involving not only gas prices but the Transportation Department’s situation. An item removed from the consent agenda for discussion was regarding rebidding of the contract for diesel and gasoline to fuel the buses.

Ralph Leath, director of transportation, said the price of both fuels has been going up and that the district would seek, from multiple vendors, monthly bids for an estimated annual amount of $1,083,285.78. Every month, Leath said, a reverse auction will be conducted and the lowest bidder will get the contract.

If the price of fuel continues to increase, he noted, they might have to adjust their spending.

The district still needs more drivers, Leath added, and buying new buses would help with fuel and maintenance costs. For years, due to budget constraints, some districts including Hernando did not buy new buses and some of those vehicles now have in excess of 300,000 miles on their odometers.

Leath said the district normally runs 110 routes but now is doing 98 routes. They have 115 drivers and are down 30 drivers, and the district could use eight to 10 aides for special-needs children.

“Being a bus driver is a difficult job, but it’s the most rewarding job,” Leath said.

Buses are inspected every 25 days, Leath said. The district has 148 buses, and he estimated that 10 to 15 buses are in maintenance every day.

As for new buses, Leath said at the next meeting the board would see an agenda item about buying seven new buses, and seven more next year. New buses are a little more fuel-efficient and cost less to maintain, he said, and the old buses are put out to auction.

One thing that has changed in his department, he said, is that mechanics are not driving buses any more, but are working at their regular jobs to keep the fleet running.

The item passed 5-0.

In other action

  • Stratton stated that the schools need more teachers, and that anyone considering a career in education should look at special education, where the demand is very high. He repeated that bus drivers also are being sought, he said, and added that cafeteria workers are needed, too.
  • The board approved a contract for design services for the Suncoast Technical Education Center New Building to Furr, Wegman & Banks Architects, P.A., for design services not to exceed $705,213.
  • The board approved 5-0 the district’s Exceptional Student Education Policies and Procedures for 2020-’21 through 2022-’23 that had received tentative approval at the Sept. 21 workshop.
  • The board approved 5-0 the Contractual Service Agreement between Pasco-Hernando State College and the Hernando County School District for the Suncoast Technical Education Center; the 2022 Legislative Platform Priorities; the 2021-’22 5-Year District Work Plan.
  • The board approved 5-0 the job descriptions and salary schedules for the Aaron Fies Guardian Program. Stratton again emphasized that the program does not replace School Resource Officers, but enhances them.
  • The board approved 5-0 in the consent agenda the appointment of Dennis Alfonso as the school board’s attorney.