DCPS mulls CDC recommendation as school masks remain ‘strongly encouraged’

Superintendent hopes to have decision finalized by Tuesday

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Duval County Public Schools held a workshop Wednesday, and the school superintendent says the district is taking into consideration the latest recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

DCPS has said masks will be highly encouraged when students return in the fall, but not required. The CDC’s updated recommendations advise all teachers, staff, students and visitors wear a mask, whether they’ve been vaccinated or not.

“When we say highly encouraged, we highly encouraged you do it. But bottom line, it’s up the family,” said Dr. Diana Greene, school superintendent.

During the meeting, some parents voiced support for another mask mandate inside Duval County schools -- some saying they’re afraid to send their children back to school without one.

“Knowing that Duval County Schools is choosing to keep masks optional, to me, is astounding,” said Nicole Alexander, a parent.

“Strongly encouraging masking indoors doesn’t protect my children,” said Agata Gardner, a parent.

A family of five in Duval County, including three children ages 2, 4 and 7, are quarantined after testing positive for COVID-19. Christopher Johnson, the father, said he doesn’t want other children to go through what his family has experienced, and he wants the district to require masks.

Speaking via Zoom during the meeting, Johnson said his 7-year-old daughter came down with a 103-degree fever. He was the next person to feel sick.

“I could barely stand straight out of bed, so I ended up calling out of work and going to the doctor and inevitably, I got a positive COVID test,” Johnson said.

He said they’ve had fevers, body aches, chills and fatigue.

“There are so many people that this virus is killing, and it’s a scary thing to sit and think about,” Johnson said. “One of us could just wake up, have their own bad breathing problems and be put in the hospital and not ever come home.”

Notably, no parents at the meeting spoke out in opposition of a mask mandate.

The district is still working to finalize its plan for the upcoming school year. Greene hopes to have a final decision made on masks by Tuesday.

“I will always sit on the side of caution,” said Darryl Willie, vice chairman of the school board. “And I know we’re all trying to do the same thing, that’s balance between caution and freedom, professional and personal because I’m sending my own kids in that aren’t able to get the vaccine.”

The Duval County Health Department has said it will support the district’s choice.

“This is a very important decision that you’re making, so please think about it and make the appropriate decision for your child,” said Ernesto Rubio, with the Health Department.

DCPS announced precautions it’s taking in the fall, including temperature checks for elementary students. Social distancing will still be a requirement, hand sanitizer will be in every classroom and each school will get a nurse or health aid. School visitors will be limited for the first nine weeks.

Mary Dobbins teaches at Westside High School. She has underlying health conditions that put her at an increased risk for COVID.

“For us not to follow the most important and trusted medical organization in our country is just unconscionable to me,” she said.

Dobbins sent a letter Greene, saying that if the district doesn’t follow the advice of the CDC, she won’t be part of it.

“If they do the right thing, I’ll be in my classroom on Tuesday. If they don’t, I’m resigning,” she said.

On Wednesday, News4Jax learned of an outbreak of COVID-19 within Atlantic Coast High School’s cheerleading squad. Six members of the team tested positive and the rest have been told to get tested and quarantine.

About the Authors:

Renee Beninate is a Florida native and award-winning reporter who joined the News4Jax team in June 2021.

Joe covers education and breaking news. He is a frequent contributor to the News4Jax I-team and Trust Index coverage.