Duval School Board votes to ‘explore’ challenging state order on COVID-19 safety

The Florida Times-Union | By Emily Bloch | September 28, 2021

The Duval County School Board is fighting back against a state executive order that jeopardizes how the district handles its mask mandate and, potentially, quarantine policies. 

Tuesday the board voted 4-3 to allow its general counsel the ability to explore or move forward with litigation challenging a rule issued last week by Florida’s new surgeon general. Board members Charlotte Joyce, Lori Hershey and Cindy Pearson voted against the motion. 

School Board members say the move is about more than just its existing mask mandate — but a statement in favor of home rule. 

“It’s about not wanting our children to be political pawns,” said chairwoman Elizabeth Andersen. “It’s about preserving the board’s authority” and safeguarding against “executive overreach” from the state. 

The decision followed an hours-long emergency board meeting featuring dozens of public comments from people against the district’s existing universal mask mandate, which only has a medical opt-out option. 

Last week a letter from Florida Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said the district’s mask policy was being “investigated” and was out of compliance with Florida’s rules. 

new executive order last week doubled down, giving parents the ultimate say with a school’s quarantine policies if a student is asymptomatic. 

While previous quarantine policies varied in the number of days depending on COVID-19 exposure and symptom factors, the new policy says if students show no symptoms, their parents can opt to forgo quarantine entirely. 

Initially the school district said it would not comply with the new policy and that officials needed more time to look into the new guidelines. By Monday, school officials announced a reverse in course, eliminating classroom closures for quarantining entirely. 

“The practice of shifting elementary classrooms to online instruction when two or more cases of COVID-19 were reported in the class in a seven-day period will no longer occur,” the district said in a statement. “New quarantine direction from the Florida Department of Health has led the district to modify practices for elementary classroom closures.” 

Indeed, Superintendent Diana Greene confirmed with board members Tuesday that quarantine compliance is largely out of the school district’s hands, since contact tracing and quarantine recommendations are handled by the local health department. 

Greene added that the new quarantine policy could also jeopardize the district’s policy for closing a school altogether because of the number of coronavirus cases on campus. Until now, the policy was if 20 percent of a campus was impacted, the whole school would close temporarily. Greene said that threshold may be as high as 60 percent now, but officials are still gaining clarity. To date, three schools have closed because of COVID-19 outbreaks this school year. 

Currently there are 27 new COVID-19 cases impacting Duval Schools this week and a cumulative total of 2,693 cases since the start of the school year. 

Duval Schools’ existing mask policy is set to expire in early December or if Duval County’s rolling seven-day positivity rate and rolling seven-day new case counts both decline to put the community spread at a “moderate” risk. 

According to Health Department data, the seven-day positivity rate is on the edge of hitting the first criteria point, but the new case count is still very high. 

Duval Health Department interim Health Officer Ernesto “Tito” Rubio said Tuesday he expects the new case count average to decrease in a matter of weeks, meaning the mask mandate could be suspended soon. 

But School Board members say this is still a fight worth having, not just because of masks.  

“We’re elected locally. Our constituents say ‘we want local control.’ They don’t see that in Tallahassee,” said School Board vice chairman Darryl Willie. “This sets a really bad precedent … This is about future situations as well. If you like local control, that’s what this is all about.”

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