JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — UPDATE: Duval County School Board voted Monday night in favor of a mask mandate for students to start Sept. 7 and last for 90 days, with provisions.
The board has the opportunity to suspend the mandate if percent positive cases of COVID-19 decrease.
The district does not have a set percentage for when that policy could be suspended, but the school board will be monitoring the percent positive cases and could adjust its rules based on recommendations from doctors.
Masks will be required for students when they are inside buildings and on buses, but will not be required for students who participate in sports, including those held inside like basketball or volleyball.
Board members Lori Hershey and Charlotte Joyce voted against the mandate.
“We are a board of public education, not a board of health. That’s just not what we do. We are a board of public education and my fear is that you are taking away a parent’s right to listen to the advice of their pediatrician," said Joyce.
However, board chairwoman Elizabeth Andersen said, "The case counts have continued to go up. This continues to be an emergency in our community and in our school district and people’s positions change.”
Duval County is now the 8th school district in the state to mandate masks for students.
The board also updated its opt out policy, now requiring students to get a doctor's approval for either medical, physical or psychological reason. Parents will no longer be able to opt out their children on their own.
Duval GOP Statement on DCPS Mask Mandate:
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. Forcing kindergarteners, first graders, and the like to wear masks is a shameful overreach of power by a group of cowardly politicians.
Board members Elizabeth Anderson, Kelly Coker, Cindy Pearson, Darryl Willie, and Warren A. Jones have chosen to put politics and the teacher's union over parental rights. Republican voters will remember come election time!
Chairman, Republican Party of Duval County
Duval County Democratic Party Statement on DCPS Mask Mandate:
“We applaud our Duval County School Board members for enacting a universal mask mandate that requires a doctor’s note to opt-out. Last night's strong response from the board will protect the lives of our students and staff. We thank them for continuing to stand up for the best interests of our community, despite the political and unconstitutional pressures of Governor DeSantis.”
A spokesperson told First Coast New Monday evening they added another 224 cases of COVID between students and staff Monday night to the dashboard. This is the highest number of COVID cases added in one day, the spokesperson said, since the dashboard started last year. Monday numbers, the spokesperson said, also include the weekend numbers, but this number is still high, the spokesperson said.
Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene said during the meeting seven DCPS staff members have died from COVID since July.
Saturday, Duval County School Board member Darryl Willie called for an emergency meeting to revisit the option of mask opt-out provisions and toughen COVID-19 protections.
Just 10 days into the school year, the district is reporting 589 COVID-19 cases, according to the COVID dashboard for DCPS. Last year at this time, that number was 20, according to Willie.
In an email to School Board Chair Elizabeth Andersen and Superintendent Dr. Diana Green obtained by First Coast News, he said it is time to address "an issue that is clearly an emergency, as every day, our students and employees are becoming sick with a life-threatening virus."
The Northside Coalition and other grassroot organizations held a news conference at 1 p.m. outside of the Duval County Public Schools' headquarters.
“We are demanding members of the school board act decisively and immediately to protect the health and welfare of our children by imposing a mask mandate with only a medical opt out component," Ben Frazier of the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville said.
"Governor Ron DeSantis is a political bully who is playing partisan politics with the Covid-19 pandemic," Frazier said.
Public comment lasted about three hours with close to 70 people speaking. Many spoke out against a blanket mask mandate, and said it's their rights as parents to choose whether or not to mask their children.
Some speakers told the board all members should resign if they choose to violate the governor's executive order which gives parents the right to choose by not allowing a complete mask mandate. Others compared a mask mandate to child abuse.
"I think ultimately they should listen to the taxpayers and the parents in the county and ultimately I think it's up to people's individual decisions to make," parent Sterling Warner said. "If you want to wear a mask, I'm not trying to prevent you from doing that. I think if there's a situation where there's a disagreement on what should be done I think we should err on the side of freedom and caution."
In his public comment, Warner said while it is upsetting that people are dying, he said unfortunately that's life.
Other parents urged the board to look at ventilation in classrooms instead, and said air filtration systems are needed more than masks.
At the beginning of the meeting, School Board Chair Elizabeth Andersen asked the crowd for a civil meeting when they cheered for one speaker. She offered an alternative of spirit fingers as not to be disruptive. The board's attorney said it's a second degree misdemeanor to disrupt a board function.
Later in public comment, several people cited their rights to choose whether or not they want to mask their child. One mother of two DCPS students said the right to choose is "why we live in the United States of America. We don't live in a communist country." That mother said the board is using children as political pawns because, she told the board, "you don't like our governor. Well guess what? we like our governor and we like what he's doing."
Several other parents said masks make things worse for children medically, which hasn't been proven. Some said they didn't want the school board to co-parent with them.
Others told the board their children have special needs and can't wear masks.
Dr. Jeff Goldhagen, who used to head up the local health department and represents the Medical Society of Northeast Florida, said many speakers reflected misinformation when they spoke.
"Masks work," he said. "There's no doubt that masks work," he said.
Donna Deegan, who ran for Florida's Fourth Congressional District last year and heads up the DONNA Foundation, spoke about her battle with cancer. She said she wasn't planning on coming to the meeting, but spent her morning at Mayo Clinic, and said "it is so amazingly frustrating to me this hasn't become about public health which is what it should be."
Deegan continued, saying "It's sad this has become an argument over liberties."
A mother of two DCPS students brought her daughter to the meeting.
"This is the only chance we have to make a change. Other counties are doing the right thing. I hope Duval County Public Schools can do the right thing too," she said.
After the public comment portion, the board took a five minute recess, then called in local doctors.
Dr. Goldhagen, Dr. Sunil Joshi, President of the Duval County Medical Society Foundation and Dr. Mobeen Rathore, Chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and Immunology at UF Health Jacksonville all answered questions from the board.
They said we need to forget that COVID is insignificant in children, because it can affect them, they said. Goldhagen said there's evidence that COVID could impact children into adulthood. He said this delta variant is only the "dress rehearsal," and that there will be other strains. Goldhagen said if the board doesn't implement mitigation measures, like masks for children, it will not only affect them, but the community further.
"We're not dealing with COVID-19 anymore," Goldhagen said. "We're dealing with COVID-21. The delta variant is a very different bug and so the data that was presented over the last year and a half or so does not really relate to this variant. Pediatricians offices are being inundated with COVID cases. We're seeing we're the epicenter of the country," he said.
"We're dealing with a disease that is the most significant disease that I've seen in my public health and clinical experience. The studies that many people presented today are just bogus," Goldhagen said.
Joshi told the board that the aggressive mitigation measures taken last year helped a lot. He said this year, there's a lot of mixed messages.
"We need to protect our most valuable asset, our children," Rathore said. "Masks work."
When asked, all of the doctors told the board this is an urgent matter and needs a decision as soon as possible. Goldhagen said the high number of COVID cases right now is directly tied to no blanket mask mandate.
"This decision needs to be made as soon as possible," Goldhagen said, urging them to mandate masks.