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Parents frustrated as Duval County School Board doesn't act on mask mandate

Legal counsel for the Duval County School Board warned members not to talk publicly about its mask policy for until they talk privately due to ongoing litigation.

Masks were on the agenda at the Duval County School Board's workshop and special meeting Monday, but no action was taken.

The board planned to discuss whether to change or cut the criteria that would cause them to suspend the mask mandate. The board's legal counsel, however, warned the board members to limit discussing the policy publicly until they can speak with them privately about three pending lawsuits relating to the mandate.

The board voted to adjourn the workshop without talking about the matter. Board members Lori Hershey and Charlotte Joyce voted against ending the workshop, however, before discussing the policy.

Before the workshop ended, Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene presented the latest COVID data. As of Monday, Oct. 11, the seven-day positivity rate was 5.3 percent. The seven-day average of new cases per 100,000 people in Duval County was 90.4. 

In order to suspend the mask mandate, the percent positivity has to be below eight percent and the new cases per 100,000 has to be below 50. Greene said she thinks that will happen in two weeks based on the way data is trending.

The board did take public comment in the meeting, hearing from 12 people with arguments on both sides of the debate. Melissa Bernhardt has children in private school but said she has been coming to board meetings for several months to try to protect all students. 

She spoke during the public comment period and said she's outraged there wasn't a discussion about the mask policy Monday.

"I am appalled at the school board not being able to do their job today," Bernhardt said. "They cannot do their job today because they decided to go against the Department of Health's recommendation for parent's to have the choice. Parents should have the choice and parents should be counseling with their physicians."

Thursday, Florida's Education Commissioner, Richard Corcoran, ordered the district to include a parent opt-out for masks within 48 hours, or lose about $38,000 in funding. Corcoran said told DCPS leaders and seven other districts they violated the governor's executive order, which prohibits school mask mandates. 

At the meeting Thursday, Greene said eliminating the parent opt-out was needed to slow COVID cases. First Coast News reached out to the state Board of Education and asked if funding has been cut yet since the board didn't meet this request. At the time this article was published, FCN hadn't heard back yet. 

When asked about how the state's threat weights on the board's decision on their mask policy, Chairwoman Elizabeth Andersen said this.

“I think that we’re continuing to stand by the policy that we made several weeks ago, and the state sanctions or the conversation that happened with the Board of Education is not part of the conversation that we’re having now," she said.

Andersen said she understands parents' frustration that the mask policy wasn't discussed Monday.

“We have so many parents really engaged on this issue and we always appreciate the folks that want to come out and have their voice heard I think it makes us stronger as a district," Andersen said.

"We're happy they came out, that they were willing to engage on this. Certainly I understand their frustration and disappointment that we didn’t have more conversation that they may have been looking forward to, but again, the legal teams have been working really, really hard as they shared with us earlier today. Many of the actions that they had to take weren’t finalized until Friday and so here we are on Monday and it was their advice that we be cautious," she added.

Andersen said counsel plans to meet with the board members privately as soon as possible to go over the nuances of the cases in order to be transparent with the community.

“Today, we came here to listen to a discussion that was announced by public hearing that we could come in and watch the school board discuss this unethical standard and so, the lawyer, and there were two of them up there, have said they can’t have a meeting where they discuss the three cases that are going into litigation, one of which is going against the Department of Health, which if they weren’t going against the Department of Health and they were obeying the law the way they want us to obey the law we probably wouldn’t be here in this conversation," Bernhardt said.

Bernhardt said she wishes parents were given more notice that the board wouldn't discuss the mask policy because she spent time away from her children to attend the meeting.

Andersen said if the mask mandate is suspended due to COVID data, she's not sure if the pending litigation will go away as well. 

"This has been a really interesting conversation. Certainly, we see among our neighbors and our community members that there’s a lot of divisiveness, there’s a lot of difference of opinions on the facts even presented to us, on the data points, on the science," Andersen said.  

"I think that that is not something that doesn’t end at the community. Certainly, that comes into our policy making, but I think at the end of the day when we’re working together, when we’re having good healthy conflict, then we land in a spot that’s the healthiest and the best for the most people," Andersen said.

The board is also working on a communicable diseases policy. Andersen said the superintendent will create administrative procedures. She said they want to make the policy broad enough to address several diseases, but tailored to get through COVID.