Duval Schools Require Masks Unless Students Have Doctor’s Note
Duval County Public Schools has joined the growing list of Florida school districts defying Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order on school mask mandates.
In a 5-2 vote following eight hours of public comment and deliberation, the Duval County School Board voted to require masks in schools unless parents get a doctor's certificate opting their child out for physical, medical or psychological conditions.
The rule will go into effect Sept. 7 and last for at least 90 days. It includes school-sponsored events and district-provided transportation,
It’s a ratcheting up of the district’s former rule, which allowed parents to opt out for any reason.
“It is clear to me that this is only continuing to be more and more problematic,” said board Chair Elizabeth Andersen. “So, I think it is incumbent upon us to at the very minimum be able to move forward with what we can for the good of our community.”
The district's COVID dashboard shows there have been 815 cases since school began Aug. 10, with an increase of 226 cases this past Monday.
In a presentation to the board, Superintendent Diana Greene said the school year is starting off much worse than last year when it comes to COVID.
“When we look at the case positivity rate, last year it was less than 8%. This year, it’s 21%,” she said.
She added that in the first nine days of 2020, 82 students were quarantined due to COVID-19 exposure; this year, after less than two full weeks of classes, 279 students have been sent home, and four classes have been sent into quarantine.
Greene said the district was standing up 20 testing sites to help students and staff find out if whether they’re COVID positive. An initial shipment of 2,800 tests would be followed by a second shipment of 28,000 tests.
Greene also acknowledged parents’ frustration with slow contact tracing and said the school district, instead of the Department of Health, would conduct tracing for elementary school cases, at least while the health department increases its tracing staff from 18 to 30.
Board members Lori Hershey and Charlotte Joyce voted against the new rule.
“I feel like there’s an intent or a plan or an agenda to get us to this point,” Hershey said. “I have a problem being at this point when we haven’t had any discussion. I’m not going to say too much; I’m disappointed how this was handled; I’m disappointed in this emergency meeting.”
Joyce worried that although an overwhelming medical consensus agrees that masks help prevent the spread of disease, some medical providers may differ.
The emergency meeting was initiated by board member Darryl Willie, who was absent at a board workshop last week at which four members voted not to revisit the mask rules.
Duval joins a growing list of Florida counties moving to require a medical reason to opt kids out of masks.
The counties may run afoul of an executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis that effectively blocks school districts from requiring masks in schools by guaranteeing parents the right to choose whether to mask their children.
The state Department of Health and Board of Education have enacted rules to enforce the order and threatened financial sanction against noncompliant districts.
“As we’re all aware, we have an executive order and we have the rule from the Florida Department of Health, and I think it is important for this district to show that if they decide to do a mask mandate it’s not for the purpose of defying the governor,” said school district attorney Lisa Mairs. "In fact, it’s anything but. It’s that they are trying to do their job, and what they are required to do per the Constitution.”
The federal government has said it could intervene to cover withheld state funds or otherwise support districts that implement safety measures contrary to state rules.
Contact Sydney Boles at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @sydneyboles.
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