In a late-night vote Tuesday after hours of debate, the Duval County School Board changed guidelines around masks in schools.
Now, students will be required to wear masks to begin the school year starting Aug. 10 — unless their parents or guardians opt out. There will be no consequences for opting out.
The opt-out plan is designed to get as close to a mask mandate as possible without crossing an executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis. His order Friday guaranteed parents the ability to choose whether to send their kids to school in masks.
The full text of the new Duval County rule, which is an amendment to the student code of conduct, reads:
In the interest of student and employee safety, the wearing of facial coverings is strongly recommended during the school day and at school-related events. Should recommendations from the Florida Department of Education, Florida Department of Health, or other authoritative or controlling government health agency, and/or the City of Jacksonville be revised, the district may revise their requirements related to the wearing of facial coverings to comply with their updated guidance. Any student not wearing a mask pursuant to this policy must, through his/her/their parent or guardian, complete the opt out procedures provided by his/her/their assigned school.
Board Vice Chair Darryl Willie said the policy is necessary given the spread of the virus.
“We’re at a point now where all our major hospitals are basically saying, ‘We’re full, we can’t take you,’” he said. “So I would say that we’re in quite an emergency, and because we just got the executive order, and school is starting in six days now — because it’s almost midnight — I think we have to have this conversation.”
The board meeting lasted until well past 10 p.m. Tuesday, with 47 community members signing up to speak during public comment. A handful of the speakers opposed mask mandates, but most, including seven local doctors, urged the board to take the Delta variant’s risk to children seriously.
“I’m here not just advocating for my patients, but as a mom,” said Dr. Adriana Cantville, a pediatric hospitalist with UF Health Jacksonville. “There is such a disconnect between what is going on in our community and what is going on in our hospitals. Duval is on fire, and we need time to extinguish it. Our kids' lives and their health should not be optional. Masks should not be optional.”
The school board voted 5 to 2, with Board members Lori Hershey and Charlotte Joyce opposing.
Because the rule was passed under emergency procedures, the district must revisit the rule within 90 days.
Contact Sydney Boles at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @sydneyboles.