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Duval County students must opt-out to avoid wearing masks in fall

In Duval County, parents and guardians can opt out if they don't want their children to wear a mask.
In Duval County, parents and guardians can opt out if they don't want their children to wear a mask.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Duval County School Board on Tuesday approved an amendment to its Student Code of Conduct, which gives students a choice to opt out of wearing a mask.

The additional language was: “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.”

After a meeting lasting more than four hours with emotional debate both for and against mask for children, the amendment passed 5-2 in favor.

The decision comes after Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order barring mask mandates at schools in Florida.

Earlier in the day, Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene announced the school district will set up a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in each of its middle and high schools to provide shots for students and staff. She said the goal is to get as many eligible people vaccinated as possible by the end of the first quarter of the year.

For Duval County teachers and staff, masks were already mandated through Sept. 3.

Before the meeting began, some parents and teachers protested this decision, saying that everyone, including students, should be required to wear masks. Leaders in the local medical community also called for the district to enact a mask mandate as the contagious delta variant spreads and hospitalizations spike in Florida.

“My other real concern is our children can become the Trojan horses of this virus given how infectious this variant is,” said Dr. Mohammed Reza, an infectious disease specialist. “Look at Baptist, look at Mayo, look at UF, they are at overcapacity at this point and there’s no end in sight.”

During the meeting, more than 40 parents and medical experts address the Board, asking them to reinstate a mask mandate.

“You don’t have the right to expose my child to a deadly disease,” said Beth Marlow, a parent.

“Our medical leaders are begging you to listen,” said parent Shana London. “They have been sounding the alarm for weeks.”

Melissa Bernhart said she was against the mandate, saying it’s a personal choice.

“Let the people that want to wear a mask wear them,” Bernhart said. “I’m not against someone wearing a mask. I’m against somebody making the choice for my child.”

The superintendent said the district will be taking these other COVID-19 precautions in the fall:

  • Daily disinfecting of high-touch points and use of anti-microbial spray.
  • Staffed, isolated rooms for students exhibiting COVID-related symptoms.
  • Temperature checks for elementary students only.
  • Emphasizing handwashing/using hand sanitizer.
  • Hiring additional nursing staff and school health aides to support every school.
  • Implementing free telehealth services for all students (with parental consent) to give students access to health care.
  • Continuing the use of classroom and school bus seating charts to help the Department of Health with contact tracing and to minimize quarantines.
  • Updating the COVID-19 Dashboard daily.

About the Author:

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