“We have a variant that’s more infectious and more dangerous to children than the one we had last year,” Cooper said when issuing his ruling. “We’re in a non-disputed pandemic situation with threats to young children who, at least based on the evidence, have no way to avoid this unless to stay home and isolate themselves. I think everybody agrees that’s not good for them.”
Cooper pointed to the guidance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that recommends masks for students and staff in schools, calling it the “gold standard.”
The state filed an appeal within hours, seeking to reinstate a stay as a court considers a challenge from the governor on an earlier ruling from Cooper on mask mandates. Taryn Fenske, communications director for the governor’s office, said in a statement: “No surprise here that Judge Cooper concluded that he is unlikely to be overruled on appeal. We (unsurprisingly) disagree.”
DeSantis signed an executive order on July 30 that said that “masking children may lead to negative health and societal ramifications” and that parents should be able to decide whether their children wear them. The order cited legislation DeSantis signed into law in June, the Parents’ Bill of Rights.
About a dozen districts have defied the order and put mask mandates in place for students with an opt-out only for medical reasons. DeSantis threatened to withhold the salaries of school board members who approved the mandates.
Cooper initially ruled in favor of the parents on Aug. 27. The DeSantis administration appealed, which temporarily allowed his Department of Education to enforce the no-mask-mandate order.
But the parents who are suing DeSantis said because the pandemic is an emergency situation, there shouldn’t be a stay while the underlying appeal makes its way through the appeals process.
Cooper agreed, and his ruling Wednesday leaves school districts in Florida free to require students to wear masks. He said it’s unusual to lift the stay during an appeal, but “we are not in normal times.”
At news conference on Wednesday, DeSantis said he expects to win on appeal.
DeSantis noted that pediatric hospitalizations for the coronavirus were down in Florida, and he repeated the message he’s been sending throughout the pandemic: Parents should have the last word on whether their children will wear masks.
“I don’t know why the masks have politics around it,” DeSantis said. “Let the parents make the decision that’s best for their kids. If you want masks, do it. If you don’t, that’s fine.”
But the politics around masks has been incendiary since the pandemic began and reached a fever pitch in Florida and a few other states this summer. School board meetings became shouting matches in many districts, with mask protesters disrupting meetings in several cities. DeSantis and Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sided with the protesters and threatened to withhold funding from any schools that required masks.
Alachua County in north-central Florida was the first school district to defy the DeSantis order. Broward County was the second. School officials in both counties said the state has withheld thousands of dollars over the past two weeks — $35,080 in Broward, which is equal to one month’s salary for each of the district’s nine school board members; and $13,429 in Alachua, equal to the monthly pay of the four board members who voted for the mask mandate. A fifth board member, recently appointed by DeSantis to fill a vacancy, wasn’t present to vote on the issue.
The Biden administration has lent its support to school officials wanting to impose mask mandates. Alachua County Schools Superintendent Carlee Simon said U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona called her last month and told her the federal government would replace any funds the DeSantis administration withheld.
She said she never heard from the offices of DeSantis and Corcoran, and is getting state education information on the mandate and penalties from news releases.
“Communication is very important, and I’d say right now, I feel very much that the U.S. Department of Education is offering the type of support that a school district would appreciate during a pandemic,” Simon said. “I would appreciate that type of support from my state Department of Education. But at this point, it’s just not there.”