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Duval School Board Divided On COVID-19 Mask Rules

School Board building exterior
School Board building exterior

School board members met Tuesday to consider whether to reconsider the district’s face mask rules.

Duval County Public Schools board members met Tuesday to consider whether to reconsider the district’s face mask rules as the district’s coronavirus dashboard shows 222 cases in the first four days of school. 

The district case counts grew from 81 on Friday to 222 on Monday, including a cluster of 13 cases at Baldwin Middle-High School. 

The board’s Aug. 3 emergency rule must be revisited within 90 days, but at an open board workshop Tuesday board members raised the possibility of reconsidering its opt-out rule sooner, and ultimately decided to keep the current rules until then. 

If the discussion were to go forward, the board would need to offer a two-hour notice for an emergency meeting or a 48-hour notice for a special meeting. Then, the board could rescind its Aug. 3 rule and start over. 

Board Chair Elizabeth Andersen asked the four present board members whether they had an appetite to revisit the opt-out rule. 

“We made a decision. It could be confusing to the public,” said board member Charlotte Joyce. “I think the board made a decision and I think we should stick with it and move forward.”

“It would add another layer of confusion, and I want to be mindful of the state-level politics,” said board member Kelly Coker. 

“I do not see the benefit in revisiting the decision. I don’t see how it’s healthy for the board,” said board member Lori Hershey. “I miss talking about student achievement, enhancing literacy, making math gains. I just don’t know how much more attention and time we can give to this.”

Andersen disagreed, saying she would support requiring elementary schoolers to wear masks.

"I think if we want to get back to math or recruiting and retaining students, I think we need to make sure every classroom is safe for every student, every day, and I don’t know that we are doing that right now," she said. 

Board members Darryl Willie and Warren Jones, who have expressed support for stronger mask rules in the past, were not present. 

Andersen deferred to the board majority, saying the board would revisit the rule in 90 days. 

In a series of rapid changes in the weeks leading up to the first days of class, the school board changed mask rules from “optional” to “strongly recommended” to “required, unless your parent opts you out.”

It was a policy designed to be as close to a mandate as the district felt was possible, given threats of withheld funding or other sanctions for violating Gov. Ron DeSantis' executive order on masks in schools and Board of Education or Department of Health rules for enforcing it. The order calls for districts to allow parents to decide whether their children wear masks in class.


Still, some Duval parents are demanding the school board go further. Pine Forest Elementary parent Agata Gardner has been collecting anonymous testimonies from teachers and parents, and presented them to the board Tuesday.  

“At our school, we had a welcome back breakfast,” said one teacher. “All the teachers and admin in a tight room, eating breakfast, no masks of course while eating. Two people in that room tested positive that week.”

“As I look around each class of 30 students and see a very small number of kids wearing masks, usually a number that you could count on one hand, I am upset,” said another teacher. “I don't feel safe at all. Only a few have opted out, yet they still don't comply. I have announced on several occasions that if your parents have not opted you out, you should be wearing a mask. Our principal announces it on the speaker. They don't care. They go without. They know nothing will be done. There is no mandate to give us any power to enforce this wishy-washy ‘rule.’”

“There’s no metric you should be waiting for. It’s already too late to be proactive, but we can still react to save lives and ease the burden on our healthcare system,” said  DCPS parent Chad Gardner.  “The governor’s executive order has proven itself to be toothless.” 

DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran have threatened penalties for school districts in violation of DeSantis' executive order or state rules enacted to enforce them. On Tuesday, Broward and Alachua counties were found in violation.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Duval school district announced it would reopened registration for its online learning platform, Duval Virtual Instruction Academy for a two-day registration period Thursday and Friday. 

Contact Sydney Boles at sboles@wjct.org, or on Twitter at @sydneyboles.


Copyright 2021 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.