JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Duval County Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene said Wednesday that students will not be disciplined if they don’t wear face masks.
Following hours of comments from parents and health leaders, the Duval County School Board on Tuesday night approved an amendment to its Student Code of Conduct that gives students a choice to opt-out of wearing masks.
The additional language added 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.”
While the Student Code of Conduct states “in the interest of student and employee safety, the wearing of facial coverings is strongly recommended during the school day and at school-related events,” the School Board essentially ruled that masks would be the default for students when they added the opt-out policy.
“Our No. 1 goal is to ensure that we do everything that we possibly can to mitigate the spread of COVD-19,” Greene said Wednesday in an interview on CNN.
The move by the School Board sidesteps Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order barring school districts from requiring students to wear masks.
In Wednesday’s interview, Greene indicated that administrators will not be applying discipline if students violate the rule.
“It is not tied to discipline. Our schools are prepared for when students arrive whether they are wearing a facial covering or not. They have their procedures that they would follow,” Greene said. “Again, we’re not applying discipline to students as it relates to wearing facial coverings.”
Greene joined The Morning Show on Thursday to discuss the expectations for the new school year and how the district will handle the changes:
School Board Chairwoman Elizabeth Andersen released the following statement Wednesday afternoon on the School Board’s decision:
“The Board’s emergency policy decision last night creates the best balance between our deeply held responsibility for the safety and welfare of students and staff while fully respecting parental choice under the Governor’s order. Our battle continues to be against a virus that has not yet released its grip on our community, and while the School Board takes the steps it can take, the best way our community can serve our children is to get vaccinated. For the sake of Duval County’s children, I join with all the other voices in our community asking all who are eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible.”
Some parents who News4Jax spoke with said they are relieved at the policy change.
“I’m happy, and I’m grateful to the School Board. I feel like they fought for us. It was a cautious decision,” said Matt Hartley, a parent of a DCPS student. “I didn’t want a full mandate. I still think that would be the safest thing, but I think this was a smart way to stay within the letter of the executive order.”
The district on Wednesday posted back-to-school safety protocols online, including information about the mask policy. The district said it’s working on an online process through FOCUS, its student information system, for parents and guardians to inform the district that their child will not be wearing a face mask. Details will be announced to families once the online process is in place. The district said it plans to announce this process by Friday.
According to the district, there is no deadline to fill out the form, and those who opt out do not have to show any cause or provide any specific reason why they are doing so.
The district’s post online includes the answer to the question: “What happens if a student is not opted out and does not wear a mask?” The district’s answer was similar to what Greene said in the interview.
The answer states: “Parents and guardians are expected to make their children aware of their expectations regarding face coverings. School staff will strongly recommend that a student who is not opted-out wear a face mask and will provide a mask if needed. However, the absence of a face covering will not be a disciplinary issue. We will ask parents or guardians to complete the opt-out form if children are not wearing a mask. Teachers, as they did last year when masks were mandatory, will manage their classrooms to maintain an academic focus without masks becoming an issue or impediment to learning.”
Masks were already mandated through Sept. 3 for Duval County teachers and staff.
With less than a week until the first day of school, Duval Teachers United President Terrie Brady said the district is already dealing with the coronavirus among staff.
“We are seeing so many cases in every single school just with employees,” Brady told “The Morning Show.”
Marla Bryant is a DCPS parent who co-founded the Duval Schools Pandemic Solutions Team, an online group of more than 3,500 members advocating for COVID-19 safety measures in DCPS.
“I’m getting a lot of messages through our group, but with teachers very confused at how they’re going to enforce masks in the classroom when the Code of Conduct still says strongly recommended, with the option to opt-out,” Bryant said. “I think that what you’re going to be seeing in the coming days is I think you’re gonna see people pulling their kids out of school.”
Also on Tuesday evening, the Alachua County School Board voted in favor of requiring students to wear masks for the first two weeks of school.
The state’s largest union, the Florida Education Association, praised the two school districts’ policies.
“The Florida Education Association (FEA) applauds the school boards of Alachua and Duval counties for following the advice of doctors in their communities,” said FEA President Andrew Spar. “We believe every county should be empowered to make decisions on how best to keep their students safe, in consultation with local health experts and based on the unique needs and circumstances in their area. We hope other districts also will follow the advice of trusted medical professionals.”
Elsewhere in Florida, Leon County’s superintendent also sent a letter to the governor, asking him to allow a similar mask mandate. And Broward County’s school district had imposed a mask mandate and then reversed it. Now it is reconsidering.