About 4,700 Duval County students have opted out of mask policy as school opens

Duval County Public School students & teachers return to class Tuesday

As of Monday afternoon, DCPS said, approximately 4,700 students have opted out of the district’s mask recommendation.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Most Florida students are heading back to school Tuesday and many teachers say they’re ready to return to the classroom and eager to continue face-to-face teaching. But some teachers say the stress looming over COVID-19 is worse than a year ago.

“It’s just, it’s still mind-boggling. This has been going on for a year-and-a-half,” said Mary Dobbins, a Duval County Public Schools teacher.

On Tuesday, more than 126,000 students will return to the halls of Duval County public schools. As of Monday afternoon, DCPS said, approximately 4,700 students have opted out of the district’s mask recommendation. With 126,271 students being enrolled for in-person learning, that’s 3.7%.

“This is going to be a year like we’ve never seen,” said Terrie Brady, president of Duval Teachers United. “And also, right now it’s one in every four could be getting this new Delta variance, so we are very concerned and very hesitant.”

Educators say that this year’s absence of COVID-19 sick leave benefits, the discontinuation of Duval Homeroom as a virtual option and the lack of a hardline mask mandate adds up to potential turmoil and quarantines.

LINK: Facing the Fall back-to-school page

DCPS’s opt-out policy for student face coverings led Dobbins, who suffers from serious health conditions, to forfeit her teaching assignment this year.

“I decided that I cannot go back to work and opt-out is not good enough. In some classrooms in Duval County, we are with the same groups of kids the entire day,” Dobbins said.

Kayla Laffin, a middle school teacher, is returning to teach and said she’ll have to do her best to strongly encourage mask use.

“Like most kids, honestly, you ask them and they do it,” Laffin said.

She was asked about students who don’t mask up and haven’t opted-out.

“I’ll just send a referral in for them to talk to another adult about it and have that conversation,” Laffin said. “I’m not going to be sending kids out of my classroom for stuff like that.”

Children & the threat of the delta variant

Adriana Cantville, a pediatric hospitalist at UF Health, says more children are being affected by the delta variant than with the previous strain of the virus.

“It’s a beast. It’s a game changer,” Cantville said. “They are getting moderately and severely ill, which is different than it was before.”

Cantville said much still isn’t known about the potential long-term effects of the virus -- even in children who get mild cases.

“There’s about 10% of children that develop long COVID or long-hauler syndrome. There is the multi-inflammatory syndrome of children post-COVID, where their heart and their lungs, their brain, really, their whole body has issues with swelling,” she explained.

Melinda Waszak is a pharmacist in the emergency room at Wolfson Children’s Hospital. She said she’s nervous for her children to go back to school and hopes more people about sending their children back with masks.

“My kids will wear masks, but that doesn’t mean the other kids in the class will,” Waszak said.

Baptist Health on Monday said Wolfson has 21 patients being treated for COVID-19. Of those 21 children, six were in intensive care.

About the Authors:

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

Brie Isom joined the News4JAX team in January 2021 after spending three years covering news in South Bend, Indiana.