Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
First Coast

Duval Public Schools Board Divided on COVID-19 Mask Rules

DuvalCountyPublicSchools_1.jpg
Cyd Hoskinson
/
WJCT News

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 COVID-19 dashboard shows 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 August 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 2-hour notice for an emergency meeting or a 48-hour notice for a special meeting. Then, the board could rescind its August 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 rule designed to be as close to a mandate as the district felt was possible, given threats of withheld funding from Gov. Ron DeSantis and the State Board of Education for any district that moved to require masks in the classroom.

Still, some Duval County 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.” 

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran have threatened financial harm for school districts that move to require masks. Corcoran informed southeast Florida's Broward County school leaders Tuesday that they “acted contrary to the law … by requiring students to wear a face covering or masking.” 

In an August 13 letter, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona undermined the governor’s threats, saying the federal government could cover the salaries of any official that was denied pay by state rule. 

“I am deeply concerned about Florida’s July 30 Executive Order prohibiting school districts from adopting universal masking policies consistent with CDC guidance,” Cardona wrote. “The Department recognizes that several school districts in your state have already moved to adopt such policies in line with guidance from the CDC for the reopening and operation of school facilities despite the State level prohibitions. The Department stands with these dedicated educators who are working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction.”

On Tuesday afternoon, DCPS announced it would reopened registration for its online learning platform, Duval Virtual Instruction Academy (DVIA), for a two-day registration period Thursday and Friday. 

We know this has been a challenging time for many of our families as they try to determine the best option for their children amid the pandemic,” said DVIA Principal Mark Ertel. “Transitioning families from brick-and-mortar to our virtual environment is a complex process, and we will continue to work hard to support our families and help students have a great launch into online learning as quickly as possible.”

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