How it started vs. how it’s going: DCPS’ mask mandate

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — During the summer, the Duval County Public Schools district drafted a plan for their ‘COVID-19 Mitigation Measures’ to combat the virus in schools. The plan included several health and safety protocols but requiring masks for students was not one of them. Masks at the time were only highly recommended, not mandated.

Then, as the 2021-2022 school year quickly approached, DCPS announced in an email that all employees would be required to wear a mask for 30 days. That was announced July 30, the same day Gov. DeSantis issued the executive order barring school districts from requiring masks. The district said had it not been for the governor’s executive order, students would have been included in the requirement as well.

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A few days later, Aug. 3 the school board voted 5-2 to update the language surrounding masks in the school’s ‘’COVID-19 Mitigation Measures.’’

The update required that students wear a mask while in school, but an opt-out option was made available for parents who did not want their child to wear a mask. The new guideline stated:

“Any student not wearing a mask pursuant to this policy must, through his/her/their parent or guardian, complete the opt out procedures provided by his/her/their assigned school.”

On the first day of school, Aug. 10, those were the guidelines in place.

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On Aug. 23, just 13 days into the new school year, DCPS reported 815 positive COVID-19 cases comprising 704 students and 111 staff, so an emergency meeting was held to figure out a plan.

After more than eight hours of hearing from public speakers and medical experts, the board voted in favor 5-2 for a mask mandate.

The mandate now required opt-outs to come from a doctor for a medical, physical, or psychological reason. A parent/guardian can no longer sign off on the student’s opt-out.

This plan is scheduled to begin Sept. 7. The district, however, is now under investigation by the Florida Board of Education for violating DeSantis’ executive order.

DeSantis’ order, issued July 30, requires schools to let students opt out of wearing a mask if their parent/guardian signs off on it.

The state sent the district a letter Friday, August 27, which was the same day a judge ruled against the governor’s ban on mask mandates, which DeSantis said he would appeal.

In the letter addressed to Superintendent Dr. Diane Greene and board chairman Elizabeth Anderson, the state claims the district is violating the governor’s order.

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said in the letter that if the district does not comply with the governor’s executive order, he will recommend the state department withhold funds equal to the salaries for all board members. You can read the full letter below:

READ: Feds raise concerns about Florida’s school mask order, withholding funds from educators

The board member’s salaries are guided by a state statute. DCPS has seven board members, and each is paid $45,891. That’s a total of $321,237 of funds the state is threatening to withhold.

Corcoran has demanded the district respond in writing with how they plan to comply with the governor’s orders by 5 p.m. Wednesday.

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Working with its legal counsel to respond as quickly as possible, Greene and Anderson issued a letter to Corcoran on Wednesday evening.

The letter reads in part, “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.”

It goes on to state, “As the Emergency Rule requires, this paragraph provides a method for parents to opt students out of wearing a mask with a medical certification from a licensed health care provider that the student has a medical, physical, or psychological condition ... ” You can read the full letter below:

Back on August 23, NAACP Jacksonville Branch President Isaiah Rumlin wrote a letter to Greene reiterating the organization’s position on masks in schools. Rumlin had originally written a letter in July as well with the same stance.

He told Action News Jax he is proud of the district standing up to the state.

“They are doing the right thing and taking the position that they have taken to mandate masks for these students and for everyone else going into school buildings,” Rumlin said.

You can read more of DCPS’ COVID-19 guidelines here.

Bailey Husker

Bailey Husker, Action News Jax

Bailey Husker is a digital content producer and assignment editor for Action News Jax.