Duval Schools Require Masks Unless Kids Have Doctor’s Note

Aug 23, 2021

Duval County Public Schools has joined the growing list of Florida school districts defying Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on school face mask mandates. 

In a 5-to-2 vote following eight hours of public comment and deliberation, the Duval School Board voted to require masks in schools, at school-sponsored events and on district-provided transportation, unless parents get a medical certificate opting their child out for physical, medical or psychological conditions. The rule will go into effect Sept. 7 and last for at least 90 days.  

It’s a ratcheting up of the district’s former rule, which allowed parents to opt their child out of mask wearing for any reason. 

“It is clear to me that this is only continuing to be more and more problematic,” said School Board Chair Elizabeth Andersen. “So I think it is incumbent upon us to at the very minimum be able to move forward with what we can for the good of our community.”

The DCPS COVID dashboard shows there have been 815 cases since school began on Aug. 10, with an increase of 226 cases on Monday, Aug. 23, alone. 

In a presentation to the board, Superintendent Diana Greene said the 2021 school year is starting off much worse than last year when it comes to COVID. 

“When we look at the case positivity rate, last year it was less than 8%. This year, it’s 21%,” she said. 

She added that in the first nine days of 2020, 82 students were quarantined due to COVID-19 exposure; this year, after less than two full weeks of classes, 279 students have been sent home, and four whole classes have been sent into quarantine. 

Greene said the district was standing up 20 testing sites to help students and staff find out if they’re COVID-positive. An initial shipment of 2,800 tests would be followed by a second shipment of 28,000 tests. Greene also acknowledged parents’ frustration with slow contact tracing, and said the school district, instead of the Department of Health, would conduct contact tracing for elementary school cases, at least while the DOH increases its contact tracing staff from 18 to 30. 

Board members Lori Hershey and Charlotte Joyce voted against the new rule.

“I feel like there’s an intent or a plan or an agenda to get us to this point,” Hershey said. “I have a problem being at this point when we haven’t had any discussion. I’m not going to say too much; I’m disappointed how this was handled; I’m disappointed in this emergency meeting.” 

Joyce worried that although an overwhelming medical consensus agrees that masks help prevent the spread of disease, some medical providers may differ. 

The emergency meeting was initiated by board member Darryl Willie, who was absent at a board workshop last week at which four members voted not to revisit the mask rules. 

Duval joins a growing list of Florida counties moving to require a medical reason to opt kids out of masks, including Sarasota, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Leon and Alachua counties. The counties may run afoul of an executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis that effectively blocks school districts from requiring masks in schools by guaranteeing parents the right to choose whether to mask their children. 

“As we’re all aware, we have an executive order and we have the rule from the Florida Department of Health, and I think it is important for this district to show that if they decide to do a mask mandate it’s not for the purpose of defying the governor,” said DCPS attorney Rita Mairs. "In fact, it’s anything but. It’s that they are trying to do their job, and what they are required to do per the Constitution.” 

The federal government has said it could intervene to cover withheld state funds or otherwise support districts that implement safety measures contrary to state rules. 

“I am deeply concerned about Florida’s July 30 executive order prohibiting school districts from adopting universal masking policies consistent with CDC guidance,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona wrote in an August 13 letter to DeSantis. “The Department stands with these dedicated educators who are working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction.”

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