As COVID-19 resurges, so does debate over masks in classrooms

Some parents call for return of mask mandate in Duval County schools amid rising COVID cases

All children should wear masks in the fall: that's the latest guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As the United States again experiences a resurgence of COVID-19, many Duval County families are looking ahead to reopening classrooms in August and wondering how the pandemic will affect another school year.

The debate continues in social media groups and online forums as to whether the school district should reimpose a mask mandate for the 2021-2022 school year.

Though many school districts, including Duval County’s, have announced that face-coverings will be optional rather than mandatory during the upcoming academic year, the rapid spread of the delta variant of the virus and the lower-than-expected vaccination rates have prompted some families to push for more COVID-19 safety protocols.

In an April 14 memo, Florida Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran asked the state’s superintendents to not impose a mask policy for the next school year, baselessly claiming that, “districts’ face-covering policies do not impact the spread of the virus.”

According to Mayo Clinic, face masks can slow the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Face masks combined with other preventive measures, such as getting vaccinated, frequent hand-washing and physical distancing, can help slow the spread of the virus, Mayo Clinic said.

“Such policies may also impede instruction in certain cases, especially for students with disabilities and English language learners who benefit from viewing a teacher’s face and mouth,” Corcoran’s memo said. “We ask that districts, which currently are implementing a mandated face-covering policy, revise their policy to be voluntary for the 2021-2022 school year.”

RELATED: Jacksonville doctor voices concerns about COVID-19 surge as kids near return to school

But some parents and district staff members say the delta variant and vaccination rates should be taken seriously and not be politicized.

“I think that DCPS should mandate masks for middle and elementary schools,” said a DCPS elementary school teacher who asked to remain anonymous. “The CDC recommends that unvaccinated people wear masks and we know that encompasses preschool through 6th graders. This new variant is moving quickly and Duval is a hotspot again. Masks prevented widespread contagion last year and they need to be in place to prevent it this year.”

A mask mandate appears to be unlikely for Duval County Public Schools, as an emailed response to a parent’s inquiry from DCPS superintendent Diana Greene explains.

“The Florida Department of Education and Florida Department of Health worked closely this past school year to monitor relevant health data, and based upon their review, the updated guidelines provided by the Florida Department of Health to schools state that mask policies for schools should be voluntary,” Greene’s email said. “This allows families to make a personal decision about their student wearing a facial covering while at school.”

Greene’s message added that the district will still use anti-microbial protectant spray, robust cleaning practices, provide hand sanitizer, “emphasize” social distancing wherever possible and encourage school-based personnel and students to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

On Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated its recommendations for the reopening of schools, including a recommendation that everyone older than age 2 wear masks, regardless of their vaccination status.

“The AAP also amplifies the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations for building ventilation, testing, quarantining, cleaning and disinfection in the updated guidance,” an AAP press release said.

Dr. Maria Mora, a doctor in Clay County, said she agrees with the new guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Pediatricians, we deal with this virus every day. That’s 75 percent of our bread and butter,” Mora said. “We see that masks work and we need to stick to that guideline.”

According to a spokesperson for YMCA Camp Immokalee in Clay County, two of its campers went home last week with symptoms and later tested positive for the virus. Since Saturday, the camp has learned of nine more positive cases among the 110 campers that were sent home.

Mora believes there’s a chance with students going back to school in the fall that cases could rise again.

About the Authors:

McLean is a reporter with WJXT, covering education and breaking news. He is a frequent contributor to the News4Jax I-team and Trust Index coverage.

Brie Isom joined the News4JAX team in January 2021 after spending three years covering news in South Bend, Indiana.