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With hands tied, schools try to contain COVID

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Matt York
/
AP

When students return from the holiday break this Tuesday, they'll be under new COVID-19 safety measures.

School visitors, teachers and employees will be required to wear masks, and field trips are postponed. Attendance for school events and sports competitions have been reduced to 75% capacity, and faculty meetings will be held virtually.

Duval County Public Schools sent a letter to parents over the weekend announcing the measures, hamstrung by restrictions passed by the state legislature in November that prevent public schools from mandating masks for students.

Those restrictions don't apply to private schools, which have instituted mandates in some instances.

"Our students, we will strongly encourage them to wear masks, but we cannot mandate that they wear masks,"
Duval Schools Superintendent Diana Greene said Monday.

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Raymon Troncoso
/
WJCT News
Duval Schools Superintendent Diana Greene speaks at a news conference announcing free JTA bus rides for students. She took questions on school policy as Omicron surges.

"The foresight of this board passed a communicable diseases policy in December. We are now enacting that policy ensuring that we provide a safe environment for our students," Greene said. "We also have updated our air filters to MERV 13, so we feel very confident that we are prepared for our students to return back to school tomorrow."

As of Friday, Duval County had a COVID-19 positivity rate of 27% driven by the new, highly infectious Omicron variant, which under previous guidelines would have triggered more serious measures. While the school district previously defied executive orders from Gov. Ron DeSantis that prevented more extensive COVID-19 safety mitigations, they have not challenged the new law.

The school district says it will reevaluate its safety measures at the end of January. Depending on COVID-19 conditions, the district may extend the length of safety policies or try to identify additional mitigations that won't violate state law.

Reporter Raymon Troncoso joined WJCT News in June of 2021 after concluding his fellowship with Report For America, where he was embedded with Capitol News Illinois covering Illinois state government with a focus on policy and equity. You can reach him at (904) 358-6319 or Rtroncoso@wjct.org and follow him on Twitter @RayTroncoso.