Duval County School Board approves 90-day mask mandate with medical opt-out

Vote held on same day 226 COVID-19 cases were added to district’s dashboard

Starting Sept. 7, all Duval County public school students must wear a mask unless they have a doctor's note.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After hours of sometimes fiery debate involving doctors, parents and local leaders, the Duval County School Board on Monday made the controversial and potentially costly decision to require face masks.

At an emergency meeting that stretched for eight hours, the school board voted 5-2 to approve a 90-day mask mandate for all students unless they get a note from a licensed health care provider that says the student has a medical, physical or psychological condition that prevents them from wearing a face covering. Previously, the school district’s policy was a strong recommendation but asked that parents opt their children out if they didn’t want their child to wear one.

The “no” votes were board members Lori Hershey and Charlotte Joyce.

“I want to leave it up to their parents to make a choice,” Joyce said.

“I believe parents are making the right choice for their children and I trust parents to do that,” said Hershey during an interview Tuesday on The Morning Show. “I do believe a one-size-fits-all approach is not right. More importantly, when we were sworn in, we took an oath that we would abide by the laws of the state of Florida and I want to honor that oath.”

The student mask mandate will begin Sept. 7. The superintendent has the ability to suspend the requirement before the 90 days are up.

Under the emergency rule approved by the school board, students who aren’t opted out must wear face coverings inside school buildings. Students do not have to wear masks if they’re actively playing sports.

The vote was held on the same day that more than 200 COVID-19 cases were added to the district’s online tracking dashboard. As of 8 p.m. Monday, there have been 815 cases districtwide (704 student cases and 111 staff cases) since the first day of school, Aug. 10. That’s an increase of 226 cases (201 student cases and 25 staff cases) since 10 a.m. Monday -- the highest single-day addition to the dashboard since the coronavirus pandemic began. The next highest single-day increase was Jan. 13 when there were 166 cases added. In all of last school year, DCPS had just under 2,500 cases.

Before a decision was made, over three hours of public comment featured passionate pleas from both sides -- people for and against masks. More than 65 community members shared their opinions.

“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 was, citing Florida Gov. 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.”

It was a tense meeting with school board chairwoman Elizabeth Andersen having to tell the audience multiple times to quiet down.

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.

“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.”

Ernesto Rubio, interim director of the Florida Health Department in Duval County, was also there to support masking.

Monday’s emergency meeting was called by school board vice-chairman Darryl Willie, who said the pandemic emergency is at a point where the school board must impose a mandate.

“If we continue on the path we’re on, we have to do something to protect our staff and students,” Willie said at the meeting.

Duval County joins a growing list of at least eight school districts in the state that are choosing to defy DeSantis’ order banning any mask mandate that requires a doctor’s note to opt out.

“By their vote this evening, the Duval County School Board has blatantly defied Florida Law and Governor Ron DeSantis by violating the Governor’s Executive Order and The Parents Bill of Rights, removing the “opt-out” for masks in our schools,” the Republican Party of Duval County tweeted Monday night.

DeSantis’ administration has threatened to cut funding and withhold salaries for school board members who decide to go against the order. But the Biden administration has said it would make up the difference of any state-level funding cuts for mask-requiring districts.

Andersen said that even though the governor’s administration has threatened salaries, students’ safety is worth it.

“We’ve seen several districts keep the opt-out in place and leave it up to doctors,” Andersen said. “Our salaries are secondary.”

Florida’s battle over masks in schools to guard against COVID-19 landed Monday before a judge considering a lawsuit that challenges DeSantis’ order. The hearing is scheduled to end by Wednesday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.

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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.