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Fla. judge rules DeSantis administration cannot restrict school districts’ mask mandates

A student arrives for the first day of classes at a public school in Miami Lakes, Fla., on Aug. 23. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg News)
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A Florida judge ruled Friday that Gov. Ron DeSantis’s administration overstepped its authority in restricting school districts from enacting mask mandates after parents sued officials amid a surge in coronavirus infections.

Judge John C. Cooper of Florida’s 2nd Circuit sided with parents from six Florida counties who challenged DeSantis (R) and state education officials in court this week, arguing that the governor’s order infringes on classroom safety guaranteed by the state’s constitution.

In a milestone decision in the heated debate about mask mandates in Florida, Cooper declared that the state cannot require districts to offer voluntary mandates over “the preservation of general welfare,” comparing the masking issue to the difference between the right to drink alcohol and the criminality of drunken driving.

“We don’t have a right to go into a crowded theater and yell fire because we decided it’s our right to do that,” he said.

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The injunction is expected to go into effect as early as next week and will bar the Education Department from punishing school districts for not complying with a Health Department rule requiring those with mask mandates to offer an opt-out option. The ruling came after DeSantis ordered state policy revised to allow parents to choose whether they want their children to wear masks.

The injunction is not against DeSantis himself, the judge specified, but rather the enforcement of rules that stemmed from his order. The decision could be overturned by an appeals court or differ from the outcomes of other lawsuits moving through courts. DeSantis previously vowed to appeal if his administration lost.

In a statement shared with reporters, DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw said the ruling goes against parental rights and instead favors “elected politicians.” She said the administration was confident that it would “prevail on the merits of the case.”

“This ruling was made with incoherent justifications, not based in science and facts — frankly not even remotely focused on the merits of the case presented,” she said.

Judge John C. Cooper of Florida's 2nd Circuit ruled on Aug. 27 that Gov. Ron DeSantis's administration cannot restrict school districts' mask mandates. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Marco Bello/Reuters/Reuters)

Parents who sued DeSantis, meanwhile, expressed relief. In a news conference Friday afternoon, they said they hoped officials who think schools should have mask mandates feel emboldened now that a judge has backed that decision.

“I think this just gives them the backup and support that they needed to continue to do the right thing,” said Kristen Thompson, a parent in Alachua County.

Florida is among at least eight states, including Arizona, Texas and Utah, that restrict school leaders from enforcing mask-wearing as students return to classrooms amid a national coronavirus surge driven by the highly contagious delta variant. Nearly all of those eight states face legal challenges from parents who say masks limit the spread of the virus.

Florida ranks fifth nationwide for the most new infections per capita; the hospitalization rate has tripled in the past month, and the state’s average count of covid-19 deaths reached a record 227 a day.

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Florida’s school mask policy has come under criticism from other factions. Districts representing more than half the state’s children have defied the order to offer an opt-out option. The Biden administration admonished the governor and Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran for threatening to withhold school board members’ salaries for violating the new policy. Public health experts have urged authorities to enact mask mandates to curb the spread of infection.

Alberto M. Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the nation’s fourth-largest district, called Friday’s ruling “important.” The district is among those facing off with the state and requiring masks.

“The decision today in Tallahassee is a critical one,” he told reporters. “In essence, Judge Cooper affirmed the legality of the protocols adopted by our school system just last week.”

During Thursday’s closing arguments, Michael Abel, an attorney representing DeSantis and state officials, said the governor’s executive order protects parents’ rights to make medical decisions for their children. He added that the data showing the efficacy of masks is “inconclusive,” despite broad consensus from health agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that face coverings can protect the wearer and people in close contact. The CDC recommends that children wear masks at school.

The state’s legal team also argued that parents suing the state did not have legal standing and had not named the Health Department in their lawsuit, so they could not effectively block the state’s actions.

Parents suing the state contended that the public health benefit of widespread mask-wearing in schools takes priority over individuals’ objections to masks. Those who testified voiced fears about their children, too young to be eligible for coronavirus vaccines, getting sick as more students are sent home because of exposure to the virus.

Infections among children under 12 in Florida have risen recently, with 20,331 new cases last week, according to state data. The Food and Drug Administration has given emergency-use authorization to the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for children ages 12 and up.

“This is an emergency,” Charles Gallagher, the lead attorney representing parents, said during the proceedings, which took place over video because of the pandemic.

More than half of Florida’s students now go to schools mandating masks in defiance of DeSantis

While most of the 67 school districts in Florida have not required face coverings, 10 districts, making up a majority of the state’s 2.8 million public school students, have said students must wear masks in class unless they are excused for medical reasons. Two of the first to require masks, districts in Broward and Alachua counties, have not backed down since the state warned that it would dock funding by a figure equal to school board members’ salaries.

While DeSantis and his aides have said mask mandates enacted by districts were not effective last school year, medical experts whom parents called to testify questioned the reliability of the data and expressed new concerns about the risk the delta variant poses to children.

“This does appear to be a more pathogenic virus that’s causing more illness in children in all age groups than the variants that we’ve previously seen,” Thomas Unnasch, a public health professor at the University of South Florida, testified.

The parents’ side compared mask rules with other public health requirements already followed in schools, from mandating specific vaccines to providing nut-free classrooms when students have severe allergies.

Amy Nell, a parent in Hillsborough County, testified that her family members wear masks to protect themselves but also for those around them.

“This isn’t going away without involvement from the community,” Nell said.

The state had parents testify about wanting the option for their children to not wear masks.

Ashley Benton, a Leon County parent, said her daughter’s pediatrician wouldn’t sign the forms to exempt her daughter because of her speech disorder.

“We know our children better than anyone,” Benton testified. “We can make decisions based on their individual needs.”

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