Masks and virtual learning on parents’ minds ahead of school year

Despite parents’ & doctors’ pleas, masks optional in Northeast Florida schools

With just over two weeks until most Florida students head back to school, concerns over what COVID-19 safety measures will be in place are once again on parents’ minds.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – With just over two weeks until most Florida students head back to school, concerns over what COVID-19 safety measures will be in place are once again on parents’ minds.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has opposed face mask requirements in schools, even as the delta variant spreads throughout Florida, which makes up 20 percent of all new COVID-19 infections nationwide. DeSantis has signaled that he’ll call a special legislative session if the federal government imposes a mandate requiring masks to be worn in school.

The lack of face mask requirements and virtual learning options, combined with the state’s lax approach to COVID-19 protocols, has been a source of unease among local parents. Some of them held a rally Sunday evening in Jacksonville, calling for Duval County Public Schools to reinstate a mask mandate.

It’s particularly concerning for parents of elementary school-aged students, who aren’t yet eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, as their children get ready for classes to resume on Aug. 10.

RELATED: Some parents want DCPS to require masks in school | Masks ‘strongly recommended’ for unvaccinated students | Pediatricians suggest everyone wear masks in school

A Duval County Public Schools science teacher who spoke with News4Jax on the condition of anonymity expressed concerns about the way the district is handling its safety protocols for the upcoming school year.

The teacher — we’ll call her Jill — believes the district is making a mistake clinging to relaxed rules, which strongly recommend but don’t require masks.

“I think it’s a terrible idea,” Jill told News4Jax Monday. “I do understand taking down the dividers because, honestly, they did nothing. Air flows around them. The only thing they did was sort of remind students maybe to keep separate.”

Even though Jill has been vaccinated against COVID-19, and the vast majority of new infections are among the unvaccinated, she said she and her family still plan to wear their masks while at school. That includes her high schooler and her elementary school student.

TABLE: View a district-by-district summary of mask policies & virtual options below

“If for no other reason than the fact that my elementary schooler cannot get vaccinated yet,” Jill said.

Not all families feel the same way. Some, like Gov. DeSantis, are fully opposed to making masks mandatory for students.

But parents who spoke with News4Jax on Monday expressed similar concerns to those shared by Jill. They feel some of the decisions being made are being done for political, not practical, reasons.

“We’re looking at a world where case numbers are going up, hospitalizations are going up, patients are getting younger and younger. To me, it feels like not a single child at the relevant elementary level is vaccinated,” Meridith Anzulis, a Duval County parent, said. “If we follow the advice and practices of the CDC and the Department of Health, you mask indoors. If you’re not vaccinated, you mask indoors.”

With schools set to resume classes in just over 2 weeks, many families are now considering what school will look like for their children this year.

Another source of concern for parents is the lack of distance and virtual learning options.

As cases peaked at the height of the pandemic, many families elected to have their students learn through Duval HomeRoom, the district’s virtual learning option. That won’t be a choice this year since it was discontinued at the end of last year.

One option in every Florida school district is MyDistrict Virtual School, the virtual option that was available to families before the pandemic. For most districts, it’s a local branch of Florida Virtual School, an online and self-paced learning platform not tied to any specific school.

In Duval County, the district offers what’s called “Duval Virtual Instruction Academy,” as well as “DVIA HomeRoom,” a slightly altered version of the same program that includes some live instruction from teachers in real-time. That second option is only for elementary students.

News4Jax asked school districts throughout Northeast Florida how many students have enrolled in virtual options so far. Three districts responded by our deadline:

  • Duval County: 1,369 students are enrolled in Duval Virtual Instruction Academy, including 250 in DVIA HomeRoom. That’s roughly 1% of the district’s total student population.
  • Clay County: 260 students are enrolled full-time in virtual learning and more than 1,000 others are enrolled part-time. That’s a small fraction of the district’s 38,000 or so students.
  • Flagler County: 301 students of the district’s nearly 13,000 student population are enrolled in virtual learning.

Parents who spoke with News4Jax, even those who support stringent COVID-19 safety protocols, are hesitant to enroll their students in a virtual learning format. They believe their students will receive a better education by attending school in person.

“Like any parent, I want my kid to be in school in person,” Matt Hartley, who has two students in Duval County schools, said. “We’ve heard it from pediatricians, you know, experts saying it’s better for our kids to be in school. If we can do that safely with masks, where all of our kids are masked, then that’s what we should do, so they can have the classroom experience.”

Hartley said he hasn’t given up hope of a day where his children can go to school without masks, but for now, he feels it’s the right move.

“It’s the thing that will keep them safe,” he said. “And it’s the thing that will keep school kind of moving forward.”

District-by-district breakdown

DistrictMask policyVirtual learning
DuvalOptionalDVIA & DVIA HomeRoom
St. JohnsOptionalSt. Johns Virtual School
ClayOptionalClay Virtual Academy
NassauOptionalMyDistrict Virtual School
BakerOptionalMyDistrict Virtual School
BradfordOptionalMyDistrict Virtual School
PutnamOptionalMyDistrict Virtual School
ColumbiaOptionalMyDistrict Virtual School
UnionOptionalMyDistrict Virtual School
BrantleyOptionalGeorgia Virtual Learning
CamdenRequiredGeorgia Virtual Learning
CharltonOptionalGeorgia Virtual Learning
GlynnOptionalGeorgia Virtual Learning
PierceOptionalGeorgia Virtual Learning
WareOptionalGeorgia Virtual Learning

About the Author:

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.