Duval County Schools responds to Education Department’s mask mandate ultimatum

District argues mask mandate does not violate executive order banning mask requirement

Governor Ron DeSantis' office says requiring masks in schools violates the law and it's already begun punishing districts that do so.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – In a letter sent to Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the Duval County School Board said it chose to put in place a mask mandate for students with a medical opt out after 11 school district employees died and more than 1,600 COVID-19 cases were reported in schools over the first three weeks.

The letter comes in response to a Friday correspondence from Corcoran warning that if the school district doesn’t drop its “illegal” mask mandate the state would slash funding.

The letter signed by Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene and school board chair Elizabeth Andersen argues the district is not in violation of an FDOE Emergency Rule that aimed to ban mask mandates in schools.

“It was not and is not the intent of the DCSB to violate any lawful rule of the Board of Education or the Department of Health. Indeed, the DCSB’s Mask Policy complies with the Department of Health’s Emergency Rule,” the letter to Corcoran states. “As your letter appropriately states, that rule requires an option for ‘a parent or legal guardian of the student to opt-out the student from wearing a face covering or mask,’ and the DSCP Mask Policy does exactly this...The DOH rule does not state the opt-out must be unlimited, or otherwise prevent schools from establishing parameters for the opt-out.”

Duval was one of nine school districts to receive notice from the Florida Department of Education on Friday with threats to pull funding if they don’t repeal the current mask mandate.

“Every school board member and every school superintendent have a duty to comply with the law, whether they agree with it or not,” Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said in a memo to Alachua County Schools.

According to DCPS, the mask change was needed in part because the Duval County Health Department is unable to complete contact tracing on all of the positive cases arising in the district.

“As of August 23, 2021, the DCHD had only been able to close out 106 of the 895 cases,” the letter states. “Therefore, a significant number of students and staff who were and are being exposed to COVID-19 are not being quarantined, which further contributes to the rampant spread of COVID-19.”

The district pointed to the testimony of representatives from the Duval County Health Department, physicians from the local pediatric hospital, and many other licensed health care workers who were adamant about the need for everyone to wear face coverings while inside a school or administrative building.

“In the face of such testimony and the rapid and widespread increase in infections, the DCSB was compelled to take action to protect the health of students and staff and create the best opportunity for our children to continue in-person education this school year,” according to DCPS.

The Department announced Monday that it had begun withholding a portion of state funds from the school districts in Alachua and Broward Counties in response to their mask mandates, claiming that they breached the FDOE Emergency Rule.

The state threatened to withhold an amount of funding each month equal to 1/12 of the collective salaries of the school board members and possibly impose other sanctions.

In Alachua County’s response to the FDOE’s sanction, the superintendent said, “The argument for this emergency rule contradicts the rule itself. If the intent of the emergency rule is to address the recent rise in COVID-19 cases, the Department of Health should be recommending protocols and procedures that reduce transmission rather than preventing school districts from implementing them.”

On Friday, circuit court Judge John Cooper agreed with a group of parents who claimed in a lawsuit that DeSantis’ order is unconstitutional and cannot be enforced. The governor’s order gave parents the sole right to decide if their child wears a mask at school.

The law “doesn’t ban mask mandates at all,” Cooper said during a two-hour hearing that was conducted online because of the resurgent pandemic. “It doesn’t require that a mask mandate must include a parental opt-out at all.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis has said the decision to mask students should be left up to parents and said he is confident the decision will be overturned on appeal.

“At the end of the day, you know, you can’t take away parents’ rights,” DeSantis said Wednesday. “Parents do have the right under Florida law to make those decisions, ultimately, and to opt out of any forced requirements.”

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