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Duval County parents must complete 'opt out procedures' for students to avoid wearing masks

In accordance with Gov. Ron DeSantis' executive order banning mask mandates in Florida's schools, Duval County did not officially issue a mask mandate.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Duval County Public School Board voted Tuesday to add language to the 2021-2022 Student Code of Conduct concerning mask-wearing in schools to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

In accordance with Gov. Ron DeSantis' executive order banning mask mandates in Florida schools, DCPS did not officially issue a mask mandate. 

However, the school board voted in favor 5-2 to add language to the Code of Conduct requiring that students opt out of wearing masks. 

The amendment passed by the school board reads:

"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."

The district did not say what those procedures might be or any discipline students may face if they do not comply with the policy.

The change of policy followed dozens of parents, students, local physicians and state leaders gathering Tuesday before the school board meeting for a pro-mask rally  — calling for a mask mandate not only for school staff but also for students this school year.

Rally organizer Matt Hartley has two children in Duval public schools. His son is 10 and isn’t old enough to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“We know that masks will help protect our kids from becoming petri dishes for COVID. And we know that even though kids fare well often, some end up in the hospital. We don't want that to happen to any candidate," Hartley explained. "This is a nasty virus. I don't want my kid to be the statistic or anyone else's kid to be the statistic."

The more than two hours of public comment included a handful of others in favor of the original student policy for this school year, which said masks were “strongly encouraged.”

"I have a right to decide if the mask is wrong for my child. It's wrong for me," Duval schools parent Melissa Burnhardt said.

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Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene and other leaders with Duval County Public Schools answered questions about the district's back-to-school plans during a news conference Tuesday morning, just one week before students head back into the classroom.

One of the biggest questions is regarding masks, with many parents and teachers advocating for a mask mandate for students. Staff are required to wear masks in Duval County Public Schools, but Governor Ron DeSantis signed an executive order preventing mask mandates for students.

Many parents and teachers want the district to defy the governor.

First Coast News asked superintendent Greene about this. She says she “strongly encourages” masks, and she challenges DCPS families to wear them and get vaccinated to protect the children.

“My issue is not with the governor," Greene said. "It's with how can we keep our students safe and if I can get our families to commit to wearing masks on buses and indoors, that's a strong strategy we can use to support all of our students, especially at the elementary school level."

Greene says the district plans to have a vaccination clinic in every secondary school. This year they will have a telehealth program for students for physical and mental health that students can access with parental consent.

Greene says the district has the same goal as last year, which is to keep schools open. There will only be temperature checks at elementary schools. 

The district is hiring additional nursing staff and health aids. Their goal is to have at least one health staffer in every school by the end of the first month of school. She says they're 80 percent there. 

The dashboard for reported COVID-19 cases within the school system will be updated daily.

Greene says according to the Department of Health information they've received, vaccinated students who have been exposed to COVID-19 can return to school as long as they wear a mask for 10 days.

RELATED: 'Most powerful tool we have': Baptist Health requiring all workers to get COVID-19 vaccine

When asked if the district has enough teachers, Greene said its something they’re keeping a close eye on and that they have backup plans. She said they don't have information on what percentage of staff are vaccinated, but that they believe it's a large percentage.

The main virtual learning option from last year, Duval HomeRoom, is gone, but registration for Duval Virtual Instruction Academy is open through Monday, Aug. 9.

Greene says the number of students returning to brick-and-mortar school will not be finalized until the 10th day of school, but she says the "vast majority" of students are returning.

Last year there were problems with truancy. Greene says over the summer the district has recovered almost 1200 students who are re-enrolling. She says most of those students fit their definition of homeless.

Projected student enrollment is over 128,000 students, and that number includes just over 17,000 charter school students. More than 125,000 students are returning to in-person learning, which includes more than 19,000 charter school students.

Enrollment in Duval Virtual Instruction Academy is 1500 as of August 2. Greene says there were fewer than 200 students enrolled in DVIA pre-pandemic.

More than 11,000 students are registered to ride the bus. There are 856 bus routes.

Tuesday at 5 p.m. there is a pro-mask rally planned in front of the DCPS administration building. There is a school board meeting at 6 p.m.

RELATED: St. Johns County School Board unanimously votes to approve new dress code policy

BACKGROUND:

The news conference comes four days after Greene announced that teachers and staff at DCPS would be required to wear masks on campus and school facilities for 30 days beginning Monday, Aug. 2. The requirement would have extended to students, Greene, said, had it not been for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' executive order preventing school districts from implementing such a requirement on students.

It also would have extended for elementary school students when indoors until vaccinations are readily available for their age group, Greene said in an email to DCPS employees.

"While I can not require the wearing of masks, we will continue to strongly encourage students to wear facial coverings when indoors," the email says. "We will also do all that we can to support students and families with access to vaccines until the rate of COVID-19 transmission in our community is at a safe level."

Following the 30-day period, masks will be optional for district and school-based employees, the email says. Workers who have a documented medical condition prohibiting them from wearing a cloth face covering can request an exemption from Human Resources.

The mask requirement extends to district vendors and visitors, according to the email.

RELATED: Here's a list of back-to-school plans for 2021-22, county-by-county

RELATED: Duval County Public Schools teachers, staff required to wear masks for 30 days