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Parents voice concerns about masks in schools before Duval County School Board makes decision

Teacher wears mask in elementary school classroom

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Hours of fiery debate involving doctors, parents and local leaders dominated a special Duval County School Board meeting Monday before the board approved a 90-day student mask mandate with a medical opt-out.

Monday’s meeting was announced after board member Darryl Willie asked for the emergency board meeting. In a letter sent to Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene and board chair Elizabeth Andersen, Willie said it was time to reevaluate the mask policy due to the increasing cases inside schools.

Public comment featured 68 speakers and passionate pleas from both sides. It was a tense meeting with Andersen having to tell the audience multiple times to quiet down.

“We have a responsibility to protect those who cannot protect themselves,” said parent Katie Wisner. “You have a responsibility to make the hard decisions to protect our children and our community. Please, as a parent, as a mother, I plead and I urge and I beg for you to listen to the science and the experts.”

There was a strong showing of parents who were fully opposed to a mask requirement and demanded that the board leave the policy the way it is, citing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order.

“If you intend to re-implement a mask mandate, it is incumbent upon Duval County School Board to explain to all of its stakeholders, why masks are absolutely necessary,” said parent LeeAnn Parker. “Prove to us that COVID infections will be lowered because of a mask mandate.”

Board vice chairman Darryl Willie called an emergency meeting saying the pandemic emergency is at a point where the board must impose a mandate. The meeting has been tense as the public comes to the microphone saying their peace to the board.

Others including doctors, attorneys, parents and Duval County Public Schools staffers called on the school board to reimplement the mandate from last year or at least require a doctor’s note to opt out.

Two Jacksonville doctors who have been at the forefront of educating the public during the coronavirus pandemic were guest speakers at the meeting.

Dr. Mobeen Rathore, chief of pediatric infectious disease at Wolfson Children’s Hospital, as well as Dr. Sunil Joshi, allergist, immunologist and president of the Duval County Medical Society Foundation, both have been outspoken in their support for masks and vaccines.

“We have to get over these inaccurate and overplayed thoughts that COVID-19 is an insignificant infection in children. That is simply not true,” said allergist and immunologist Dr. Sunil Joshi. “Most recently the American Academy of Pediatrics noted that in the period of May 2020 through July of 2021, roughly 400 children died of COVID-19 in the United States, that’s comparable to what we see with the seasonal flu which we have a vaccine for, in this case, children under the age of 12 are not able to get the vaccine.”

Rathore said there are seven children currently hospitalized in Jacksonville with COVID-19, adding that more children were hospitalized in Jacksonville in July than any other month since the start of the pandemic

The district’s previous policy strongly recommended masks but allowed an opt-out option for those who didn’t want to wear one. At the start of the school year, more than 9,600 students or their parents took the opt out, about 7.5% of the student population.

“To date, we have a quarter of the cases (in 2 weeks) that we had the entire 2020-21 school year,” Willie wrote in the letter. “Our students and employees are becoming sick with a life-threatening virus, and an emergency meeting is needed to discuss this data and alter or change any policy that could help mitigate these cases.”

DeSantis’ order bans mask mandates that do not allow an opt-out option or that require a doctor’s note to opt out.

“We do know though there are harmful effects of kids not being able to breathe, see facial expressions,” DeSantis said in a previous news conference. “Clearly this is something for the parents to do. For schools to come in and overrule parents’ rights and force masks on kindergartners, first graders, second graders -- that’s a massive overreach.”

People on both sides of the student masking issue held a rally outside the Duval County Public Schools building before the meeting.

Elsewhere in Florida, the Leon County superintendent announced Sunday that masks will be required for students in prekindergarten through eighth grade, becoming the seventh district to defy DeSantis’ ban on such COVID-19 mandates.

The other districts that have imposed strict mask mandates are in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Hillsborough, Alachua and Sarasota counties.

About the Authors:

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

Digital reporter who has lived in Jacksonville for more than 25 years and focuses on important local issues like education and the environment.