DeSantis can’t punish districts over mask mandates, Florida judge rules

The ruling means Florida districts can require students to wear masks. Gov. DeSantis is expected to appeal.

A Florida trial court judge ruled Friday, that the executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis prohibiting county school boards from requiring masks violates the state constitution. Local school boards in Florida now can require students to wear masks if they show their policies are reasonable, 2nd Judicial Circuit Court Judge John C. Cooper ruled from the bench and over Zoom.

Ten Florida districts already have such requirements in violation of the governor’s order, including Leon, Orange, Indian River, Duval, Alachua, Broward, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, and Sarasota.

This decision is the latest volley over the executive order that has drawn the attention of the federal Education Department and the White House.

Parents of children, most of whom have health conditions, including asthma, sued DeSantis, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the Florida Department of Education, and the Florida Board of Education. “Florida students are entitled to safe schools,” the complaint reads.

During the multi-day hearing, plaintiffs’ attorney Charles Dodson argued, “Because of the delta variant, our public schools are not safe and secure at this time unless everyone wears a mask.” The plaintiffs asked the state to allow local school boards to decide whether masks should be mandatory in their school district and contended that the governor’s order violated due process.

“It was arrived at absurdly, illogically and capriciously,” plaintiffs’ attorney Craig Whisenhunt said. It also caused harm to students, teachers, and families, he said.

Plaintiffs asked for an injunction against the order as well as an order overturning it.

Defense attorney Michael Abel argued that the executive order enforces the Parents’ Bill of Rights the state Legislature adopted in July 2021.

Cooper opined that the governor exceeded his authority in his executive order. The bill of rights permits school districts to enact health and safety policies, including mask mandates without a provision for parents to opt out, Cooper said. It does not allow the state and school boards to infringe on parents’ rights “without demonstrating that such action is reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest and that such action is narrowly tailored and is not otherwise served by a less restrictive means.”

The judge said he is issuing an order enjoining the Florida Education Commission and Florida Department of Education from any action that prohibits school board from adopting mask requirements. He also ruled, based on findings of fact, that the rise of the delta variant is more contagious than the dominant strain of COVID-19 last year and that the vast majority of the scientific and medical community recommend masking of everyone while indoors and inside school buildings.

During closing arguments, Cooper said he expects the case to be appealed. DeSantis vowed the day before the opinion was rendered that he would appeal if the judge ruled against the state, Florida Politics reported.

A copy of the written decision will be made available when released by the court.

Dayna Straehley covers best practices for Title I and other school funding issues for LRP Publications.

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