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Group Of Jacksonville Pastors Call For Duval Schools To Go Fully Virtual

Pastor RL Gundy speaking out against Duval Public Schools reopening this week, alongside other Jacksonville Church leaders.
Pastor RL Gundy speaking out against Duval Public Schools reopening this week, alongside other Jacksonville Church leaders.

Outside the Duval County School Board Building Tuesday morning, a group of local church leaders gathered to call for local schools to go fully virtual for at least the first semester.

“Enforcing the Duval County School Board to make decisions based upon the threats of losing money over saving lives is morally wrong,” said R.L. Gundy, pastor for Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church.

Gundy also serves as the Florida director for African American Ministers in Action, which is partnered with the People of the American Way.

The group said they don’t put blame on Superintendent Diana Greene, but rather the state leadership’s push to reopen in-person learning options.  

The pastors cited Jacksonville’s old school infrastructure, the inability of Florida teachers to legally strike, and the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on minorities as reasons Governor Ron DeSantis should issue an executive order to make all schooling virtual. 

The Duval County Public Schools Board released a plan in late July to open schools for in-person learning beginning on Thursday, August 20. 

The initial start date was pushed back so the school district could better prepare buildings and classrooms against the spread of the virus. To begin the year, some students will start with staggered schedules, with some days being in-person while other days include virtual distance learning, depending on grade level.

There are also fully virtual options for students, either temporarily or for the full school year. 

The pastors held a short prayer before speaking to the media about school reopenings.
Credit Sky Lebron / WJCT News
The pastors held a short prayer before speaking to the media about school reopenings.

WJCT News Partner The Florida Times-Union reported the Duval County Department of Health is not allowed to give direct guidance on whether schools are safe to reopen. The department faces the same restrictions every other county department has in place. 

Gundy said as other counties in the state have reopened and had COVID-19 cases and forced quarantines, such as Martin County, the same can happen locally. 

“It's gonna happen to Duval County, but it doesn't have to happen,” Gundy said. “The governor could say ‘No.’”

The pastors said members of their congregations have come to them telling them they’re afraid of sending their children back to school.

“Especially when you got parents who are already dealing with high blood pressure, who's dealing with diabetes, who’s dealing with that asthma and also have sinus issues, who are already dealing in a community where the water is polluted [and] all these unsafe environments,” said Pastor Robert LeCount. “That makes it a triple threat, and most likely if one gets the virus, they might not live through it.”

The pastors are also calling for a postponement or altogether cancellation of high school and middle school athletics. The Florida High School Athletic Association recently ruled that school sports teams will be able to practice beginning August 24, and play games in September. 

“We do not want it to appear we are hypocritical, because some of us have our churches open under very limited conditions,” Gundy said. “However, there's no comparison to the exposures of hundreds and thousands of students and staff that will meet daily in the school house, cafeterias, bathrooms and have other events.”

DeSantis has stated in conferences and roundtables that not having in-person classes and athletics in Florida would be more detrimental to students than the negative effects it will have if schools reopen. 

“The costs are so enormously high to have school closures, and so as bad as this has been to have a virus come from China like this, the one thing that I think has made it something that a lot of parents have been able to breathe a sigh of relief is [that] it is less risky for young kids,” DeSantis said at a media conference in early July at JAXPORT. 

For Pastor Lee Harris, DeSantis’ reasoning is hard to debate.

“It's difficult to respond to what does not really make total sense,” Harris said. 

The “Duval Pandemic Solutions Team” and “Duval for a Safe Return to Campus” are two groups of school staff and students that have held rallies with similar messages to prevent the reopenings of public schools.

They’ve included several demands in their rallies, including adding masks to the DCPS Student Code of Conduct, immediate school shutdowns for positive COVID-19 tests, and Duval Homeroom for the first quarter of the 2020 school year for all students and teachers.

Sky Lebron can be reached at slebron@wjct.org, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @SkylerLebron.

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