Duval School Board holds firm on mask policy and criteria used to lift it

Florida Times-Union | By Emily Bloch | October 11, 2021

The Duval County school board is holding firm on its mask mandate. 

On Monday, the board met to go over criteria used to measure if the mandate should stay in effect and discuss potential changes. 

But based on advice from the Office of General Counsel — that the school board is involved in multiple lawsuits regarding its existing mask policy — the board opted not to discuss details during a public meeting until its own litigation team was more informed.

“Our litigation team with the Office of General Counsel advised us against having much public discussion,” board chairwoman Elizabeth Andersen said in a media gaggle after the meeting. She added that legal counsel will meet with board members individually and that a potential shade (closed) meeting could occur down the line if necessary. 

The school board is participating in a lawsuit along with other school districts deemed non-compliant on the basis of home rule and autonomy when it comes to devising safety policies in their respective areas. 

“The principle of home rule is a critical aspect of constitutional law,” said local Government Law Attorney Chris Hand, who is not involved with the local lawsuits but spoke during the public comment portion. 

School board announces decision to cut mask mandate talks an hour before scheduled start

The board adjourned the workshop portion of its meeting (with board members Lori Hershey and Charlotte Joyce voting against ending the meeting) and used the time set aside for its subsequent special meeting to entertain public comment and adjourn after. 

That decision, about an hour ahead of the special meeting, left some parents frustrated. 

Melissa Bernhardt, a community member who is also part of the local Moms for Liberty group, said she felt “duped” by the board pulling back on making decisions at the last minute Monday after sitting through its morning workshops and meetings for several hours. 

“I am appalled at the school board for not being able to do their job today,” she said. “We came here to listen to a discussion announced by public hearing for the board to discuss these unethical standards.” 

She added that she doesn’t feel like the district’s two criteria to lift the mask mandate will be met in a reasonable period of time. 

Still, not all parents or community members are upset about the mask policy sticking around for now. 

Leah Kennelly said masks are a “small sacrifice” to keep the community safe. 

“Parents tend to be quiet when they are content and very loud when they are angry,” she said, expressing her gratitude for the mandate. Other parents, expressed similar sentiments.

The public comments were largely polarized with people speaking in support of the mandate wearing masks themselves and sitting spread out while people against the mandate unmasked and sitting next to each other, disregarding the district’s taped barricades to encourage social distancing. 

“It has been a really interesting conversation … there’s a lot of divisiveness,” Andersen said. “I don’t think that’s something that ends, but if we’re having healthy conflict … we compromise and we work together to get to the right spot for the students we serve.” 

What is the threshold to lift the mask mandate?

Currently, the threshold that would justify discontinuing the district’s mask policy is based on two data points provided by the local health department that would deem the city’s community spread as “moderate”: 

  • Jacksonville’s rolling seven-day positivity rate declines to 7.99 percent 
  • Jacksonville’s rolling seven-day new case count declines to 49.99 or fewer 

Weekly health department data, which is released on Thursdays, shows the first piece of criteria — the city’s positivity rate — has been met. Currently, Duval County’s positivity rate is 5.3 percent. But the second piece of criteria, a smaller new case count, remains with a current seven-day new case average still being classified as “high” with 90.4 new cases. 

Health department officials say the two data points go hand-in-hand with one another and if the positivity rate has declined, the new case count will also eventually dip. Projections Superintendent Diana Greene said the health department estimates that the new case count could hit the 49.99 mark or fewer by December. 

Dr. Jeff Goldhagen, Professor and Chief, Division of Community and Societal Pediatrics, University of Florida College of Medicine Jacksonville spoke during the meeting’s public comment portion. 

He voiced his support for the mask mandate staying in place within Duval Schools. 

“Now is not the time to pull back, but to continue mitigation,” he said. Goldhagen compared COVID-19 safety to how agencies prepare for forest fires. He said it’s important for the school board to stay the course. 

It’s possible that the longer Duval Schools maintains its mask mandate — only offering a medical opt-out — the more funding the school district could potentially lose out on, based on a Florida Board of Education meeting last week where state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s recommendation to withhold money from “non-compliant” school districts passed.

But Andersen said the state’s sanctions won’t be part of the reason the district changes its course. 

“We continue to stand by the policy we created a few weeks ago. State sanctions are not a part of the conversations right now,” she said. “We are committed to being able to lift the mandate when it’s safe.” 

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