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The Duval school district almost ended its mask mandate. Then it looked at the COVID data again

Duval Schools superintendent told Florida's education commissioner Friday the district's mask mandate will remain in place, despite a new state law.
Duval schools superintendent told Florida's education commissioner Friday the district's mask mandate will remain in place, despite a new state law.

According to a letter to Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, Superintendent Diana Greene briefly planned to end the district’s 90-day emergency mask mandate.

Duval County's school superintendent briefly considered ending the school district's mask mandate until she saw data showing that COVID-19 is still spreading more than she thought.

Superintendent Diana Greene wrote to Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran on Friday saying that the mask mandate will remain in place, despite a state rule against it.

An emergency health rule issued Sept. 22 requires districts to let parents opt out of mask mandates at their “sole discretion.” Currently, parents can opt out of Duval's mandate only with a doctor’s signature.

Corcoran had told Duval school officials he was giving them “one more opportunity to come into compliance” or he would carry out threats to withhold school board salaries. Corcoran first made the threat at the end of August but has not followed through on it. The Biden administration has said the federal government would provide funding to make up for the loss.

Greene's consideration of ending the mask mandate was based in part on an inaccurate interpretation of COVID-19 data.

She sent a letter to Corcoran on Thursday saying the district would lift the mandate Monday, based on preliminary COVID data. But she later learned that the data was incorrect. Friday morning, Duval County’s interim health officer, Ernesto Rubio, emailed the superintendent informing her that the county had not, in fact, reached a moderate level of COVID transmission.

The superintendent then wrote a second letter to commissioner Corcoran Friday saying the mandate will remain in place because COVID cases have not fallen to the level the school board established as a benchmark.

“I made an error in my estimations. … I gave you estimated cases per 100,000 based on the daily average when it should have been total cases,” Rubio wrote in an email. “Please accept my apologies for this dreadful error.”

The latest report from the Florida Department of Health shows Duval County’s COVID case positivity rate at 7.3%, which meets one of the district’s thresholds for lifting its mask mandate. But the county's 143 cases per 100,000 people was far higher than the district's other threshold: less than 50 cases per 100,000.

“Duval County cannot yet be safely educated in person without requiring masks,” the superintendent wrote to commissioner Corcoran. “Especially considering quarantine requirements have been suspended.”

The district stopped quarantining entire classrooms last week in response to the Department of Health ruling and falling COVID case rates. Most school board members have stood firm in keeping the emergency mask mandate, saying that even beyond face coverings the state’s actions threaten local control of the district.

Board members also have said that falling case counts indicated that the mandate is working. In early September, the district has about 300 new COVID cases a week. Last week there were about 100.

The board also authorized its lawyers last week to take action against the state's health rule, but there are no challenges filed yet, according to the Division of Administrative Hearings website.

As the district continues to push back on state pressure to lift its mask mandate, another challenge from parents was filed late last week. A group of 22 parents issued a legal challenge againstthe Alachua County School Board and Duval County School Board on Friday evening, saying the districts aren’t complying with state laws. A separate group of Duval parents sued the district at the beginning of September over the mask mandate. That case is still being litigated.

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

Claire Heddles
Claire joined WJCT as a reporter in August 2021. She was previously the local host of NPR's Morning Edition at WUOT in Knoxville, Tennessee. During her time in East Tennessee, her coverage of the COVID pandemic earned a Public Media Journalists’ Association award for investigative reporting.