JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Some parents, health professionals and religious leaders gathered Sunday for a drive-in rally and news conference calling for masks to be required in Duval County Public Schools.
Cars began to arrive about 4:30 p.m. in the parking lot of the Duval County School Board building and then the news conference started at 5 p.m.
Some people in attendance were cheering and holding signs, while others participated from their cars
The group of speakers included parents, a doctor and a student.
“If many other kids are not wearing them because they are option, then there’s going to be a lot more chance for the virus to spread, and I don’t want to see any kid in the hospital or with long COVID symptoms,” said organizer and parent Matt Harley.
There was also another group that came out to protest the idea of mask mandates.
“I am a little concerned that optional will mean strong-arming, some teachers are going to strong-arm the children who are vulnerable and pressured,” said parent Melissa Bernhart, with Moms for Liberty.
Duval County Public Schools said Wednesday that it strongly recommends that unvaccinated students wear masks when the 2021-22 school year begins in August.
“Students will not be required to wear masks,” the school district said, adding they are optional for the school day as well as school-related events like bus transportation.
Mask exceptions will be made for unvaccinated students with medical or developmental conditions, the district said.
“I have a rising 5th grader who isn’t old enough to be vaccinated, said Harley.
“A mandate? Absolutely not. If you feel like you’re needing a mask, and you’re totally terrified of COVID, there’s virtual school,” said Melissa Bernhart of Moms for Liberty & Concerned Parent.
The district technically upgraded its mask policy from having them be optional to strongly recommended.
“We live in a free country. Mask ‘em, but the ones who don’t want to wear it don’t want to wear a mask. They shouldn’t have to,” said Tamsyn Bell of Moms for Liberty & Concerned Parent. “Let us live our life. Don’t punish the rest of us.”
The district follows other area school districts like Clay and St. Johns counties in making masks optional.
“I dream for the day when it’s safe for our kids to be in school without masks, but right now we need to keep as many of them as safe as we can,” said Hartley.
Some local health professionals are encouraging masks for school.
“Right now, we’re in this deadly crisis of rising COVID-19 with this delta variant surge in our community,” said Dr. Jennifer Cowart of the Mayo Clinic. “I also come here as a Duval County school parent. I have an 8-year-old and a 4-year-old.”
Cowart said she’s seen the impact of COVID-19.
“We are at a crisis point with COVID-19 and our community right now. Cases are rising. Cases out in the community are rising, cases at the hospital are rising,” said Cowart.
Some students said they were afraid to return to class.
“You know what’s more traumatic than wearing a mask? Losing your parents. Killing your auntie who moved in to be closer after the pandemic started. Making your sister so sick she can never ice skate again,” said student Kaysyn Jones.
But DCPS said that if the Florida Department of Education, the Florida Department of Health or the city changes its coronavirus protocols, the district will comply.