Duval County School Board approves criteria to lift mask mandate

Mask requirement for students went into effect Tuesday

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Duval County School Board on Tuesday voted to automatically lift the district’s mask mandate once the COVID-19 positivity rate in the community reaches a “moderate level.”

The 90-day mask mandate for students went into effect Tuesday, but Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene said the district can extend it or cut it short.

She revealed at Tuesday’s school board meeting her plan to automatically suspend the district’s mandate once community transmission of COVID-19 in Duval County reaches a seven-day rolling average of “moderate,” which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines as a 5-7.99% positivity rate during the past seven days.

Greene said the rate in Duval County was 13-14% last week.

“I do not want to indicate any timeline,” Greene said. “The goal is to get to moderate.”

The school board voted 7-0 to approve the superintendent’s plan.

News4Jax talked with school board chair Elizabeth Andersen about the move. She said she hopes it will motivate community members to get vaccinated and wear masks.

“This is an opportunity for communities to be engaged and involved. When we’re healthy as a community, then our students do not have to be wearing masks in schools, and it allows us to be more free and making sure children are able to receive the education they deserve,” Andersen said.

As of Monday evening, 2,157 COVID-19 cases had been reported in Duval County schools since the first day of school on Aug. 10, according to the district’s dashboard. Of those cases, 1,908 were students and 249 were staff members.

“Right now we are really focused on really trying to make sure our students are in school and learning,” Andersen. “We closed out the day today with over 2,100 cases -- that’s more than 85% of where we were last school year in just a month.”

Three Duval County schools have had to temporarily shut down this school year due to COVID-19 outbreaks, including, most recently, Ed While High School. According to the district, 76 classrooms have also been closed due to COVID-19.

At Tuesday’s meeting, some board members expressed their concerns with the mandate given the COVID-19 cases across the community.

“COVID is not going away. That expert you guys brought in today said this is the beginning,” said board member Charlotte Joyce.

Yet some parents made it clear to the board that they do not think students should be required to wear masks, including Tia Bess, who’s among a group of parents who have filed a lawsuit against the district over the mandate.

“I have a son that’s on the autism spectrum — speech and hearing delayed — and we’re the ones being left behind. No one is coming to our house for additional support services, and it’s time to speak up,” Bess said.

Tarin Helm is also among the group of parents suing the district. She said her daughter is hearing impaired and has struggled to communicate with her teachers wearing masks.

“Now she’s even having a hard time talking to her friends — let alone the teachers. Now we’re being forced to pull her out of school because there is such a block that has been created now. We have no choice in the matter,” Helm said.

Some board members asked at the meeting what would happen if the mandate is lifted. The district told News4Jax that it doesn’t have anything set in place to reactivate the mandate. The board would have to have another meeting to bring up a mandate.

In August, the Duval County School Board approved the 90-day mask mandate for all students unless they get a note from a licensed health care provider. The signed certification form must say the student has a medical, physical or psychological condition that prevents them from wearing a face covering.

Students are expected to wear their masks at all times with the exception of eating and during outdoor activities, but unlike last school year, students who do not follow the mask guidelines might be charged with a code of conduct infraction.

Meanwhile, the district is locked in a fight with the state over the mandate.

Last month, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent a warning, saying that if the school district doesn’t drop its “illegal” mask mandate, the state would slash funding in the form of school board salaries and possibly impose other sanctions. Although, a judge ruled against the DeSantis administration, saying that he can’t punish districts for imposing mandates under the Parents’ Bill of Rights. That ruling is being appealed.

In its response, the school board said it chose to put the mandate in place after 11 school district employees died and more than 1,600 COVID-19 cases were reported in schools over the first three weeks.

About the Author:

Renee Beninate is a Florida native and award-winning reporter who joined the News4Jax team in June 2021.