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News about coronavirus in Florida and around the world is constantly emerging. It's hard to stay on top of it all but Health News Florida can help. Our responsibility is to keep you informed, and to help discern what’s important for your family as you make what could be life-saving decisions.

Duval softens its school mask mandate so parents can now opt out

The district says a mask mandate will remain in place, but medical documentation is no longer required to opt out.

With COVID cases declining, the Duval County school district is easing its COVID mask mandate, giving parents more control over whether their children wear facial coverings to school.

A mask mandate will remain in place, but medical documentation will no longer be required to opt out beginning Monday.

"There have clearly been no easy answers or universally accepted solutions," Superintendent Diana Greene said in an email to parents Friday. "I am encouraged that our community transmission status continues to improve."

The school district said it was able to modify the mandate because Duval reached a moderate level of COVID transmission: less than 50 cases per 100,000 people and a testing positivity rate of less than 8%.

According to data issued Friday by the Florida Department of Health, Duval County recorded 41 cases per 100,000 people, and new case positivity dropped to 2.9%.

Duval was among eight districts in Florida that have been penalized for defying a Department of Health rule that gave parents the right to decide whether their children wear masks or quarantine after exposure to COVID. The state has withheld $26,770 in school board salaries.

Florida Department of Education spokesman Brett Tubbs said the district will get those dollars now that it will comply with the state's rule. "Once the district can demonstrate compliance with state law, those funds will be disbursed," Tubbs wrote in an email.

Six school boards, including Duval, have challenged the Department of Health rule at the state Division of Administrative Hearings. An administrative law judge is expected to rule in that case by the end of next week..

Duval school board members said the challenge seeks to enforce the right of local officials to control their own schools, an issue that goes beyond masks. The districts argue that the Department of Health didn't have the authority to pass a rule about parental choice.

“Unfortunately, COVID-19 is not the kind of thing that just ends," said the districts' lawyer, Jamie Alan Cole. "This is going to go on for a while and there could be more surges and we need to be in a situation where we know what the rules are if it happens again.”

The Department of Health argued that it passed the emergency rule, in part, because quarantines could hamper the education of students exposed to COVID.

In a document filed at the appeals court, Alachua County attorneys wrote that the district’s policies have followed laws and federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

On Friday, the the three-judge panel ordered local courts to take up the issue but signaled it thinks school officials have violated state law by requiring students to wear masks.

Information from News Service of Florida was used in this report.

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.