Duval Officials Uphold District’s Emergency Mask Mandate Despite Funding Cut Threats

Sep 2, 2021

Duval County school district officials are standing firm on the district’s emergency mask mandate, despite the Florida education commissioner’s threat to withhold $22,000 dollars a month in state funds.

In a letter to commissioner Richard Corcoran Wednesday, Duval County Public Schools superintendent Diana L. Greene and school board chair Elizabeth Andersen called the mask mandate both lawful and necessary — in line with a judge’s ruling last week.

“It was not and is not the intent of the DCSB [Duval County Public Schools Board] to violate any lawful rule of the Board of Education or the Department of Health,” the letter reads.

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran claims districts with mask mandates aren’t in compliance with state law unless they allow parents to opt-out for any reason.

Duval’s emergency student mask mandate takes effect Tuesday, September 7. Parents can opt out only if a doctor signs off on it. The district says it does not currently have a tally of students who are opted out with a medical exemption.

Previously, the district had a strong mask recommendation. Parents could opt out of the mask recommendation for any reason. A district spokesperson said more than 9,000 students had filed those opt-out forms, about 8% of the student body.

The district’s letter to Florida’s education commissioner details the Duval County Health Department’s difficulty in contacting student COVID cases and the advance warning parents were given about the mask mandate in its justification for the mandate’s lawfulness.

“DCSB also provided a generous lead time for parents and guardians to opt-out before the Mask Policy goes into effect,” the letter reads.

According to the letter, the Duval County Health Department only did contact tracing for 106 out of the almost 900 COVID cases in the first two weeks of the school year.

A spokesperson from the Florida Department of Education said a response to the district from Commissioner Cocoran was not immediately available as of Thursday morning.

The commissioner has already withheld funds from Alachua and Broward counties for their mask mandates, despite a second circuit judges’ ruling last Friday that the state can not stop school boards from passing mask mandates.

President Biden’s administration has previously said Florida school districts can use federal COVID relief money to make up for withheld state funds.

The district’s move to stand firm on its mask mandate comes on the heels of another Duval County school being temporarily shut down. Jacksonville’s Edward White High School shifted entirely online Thursday for one week due to COVID, according to a school announcement. The Westside high school is the third Duval public school to temporarily close since school began last month.

The closure comes as just 3.5% of Duval public school students have opted for virtual learning. The district reopened virtual enrollment for two days in mid-August as cases were rising in schools. More than 800 students swapped over to the all-virtual option during that enrollment period.

Contact Claire Heddles at cheddles@wjct.org, (904) 250 - 0926, or on Twitter at @claireheddles.