Pasco County Superintendent of Schools Kurt Browning made his usual rounds Tuesday morning on the first day of the 2021-22 school year, and was both happy and a little concerned at what he saw.
He told a gaggle of reporters at Cypress Creek Middle School that he was thrilled to see the classrooms and hallways overflowing with students and teachers — “some with masks, some without” — but he intimated he would have liked to see more of them wearing the protective face coverings.
“I want parents to know, I want the very best for their children,” said Browning. “I want their children safe. I want their children kept safe. This district is doing everything we possibly can with the hand that we’ve been dealt. We are doing social distancing where we can. We are taking extreme measures in our cleaning protocols. I’m strongly recommending staff and students, families, to mask up when they come into our schools.”
Browning cannot impose a mandate — that much has been made clear in recent days by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who via executive order has threatened to defund school districts and dock the pay of superintendents who mandated the controversial face coverings for their districts. Browning says, “I just wish he hadn’t done that,” and said he would have liked to have seen a more aggressive state-wide mandate.
“We would not be standing here having these types of conversations if there had been a state- wide mask mandate,” he added.
But Browning, who had his own three-week battle with a bad case of Covid-19, did say he may consider talking to his staff about requiring them to wear masks.
Only 47% of Pasco County residents are fully vaccinated.
“Adults need to set the example,” Browning said. “But then, when I make that pronouncement, or if I make that pronouncement, then I’m showing my political bias, apparently, because I think masks are a valid way to tamp down Covid.”
Concern was the theme of Browning’s press meet-up. Florida is the epicenter of the latest Delta variant Covid-19 outbreak, just as schools are opening. He worries about the future as the heavy and expanding cloud of the pandemic hangs over everyone.
More than 15,000 positive cases a day have been reported every day this month. Hospitalizations and deaths are at record-setting highs. Numbers are rising among the younger, school-age population, as well.
“I think we’re weathering the storm,” Browning said, when asked if there was any positive case number that would force him to change course. He also said that his hands were tied. “Last year, 5 percent (positivity rate for Covid) was a trigger for us. The last number I heard was mid- to upper-20 percent. That number, which is scary to me, really doesn’t have an impact on what we do, because of the executive order.”
Browning said the county is hoping the numbers drop in the next 10 school days, but the superintendent seemed to believe there will be a rise in the count.
“I think when we start seeing what happens to Covid numbers with kids in 2 weeks or 10 days, if there’s a spike, we’ll take a hard look,” he says. “Whereas last year, when we were having to close down classrooms, I am fearful that (this year) it may cause us to close down schools.”
Until then, Browning says the District will do everything it can to keep schools running smoothly and doing what they do best — educating the children. He thinks a return to classroom teaching is paramount — especially since last year’s eLearning option is no longer funded by the state and is therefore unavailable — and also says that the mental health issues caused by kids not being in class last year “were staggering” and also must be considered.
“We’re going to hang in there, play tough and we’re going to get through the first 10 days of school and see where we are and, at that point, adjust,” Browning said. “That’s the attitude that this District is taking to make sure we can accommodate our kids and staff…it’s a challenge.”