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Florida school mask fights heat up again as appeals court backs DeSantis and Biden administration opens civil rights investigation

Students, some wearing protective masks, arrive for the first day of school at Sessums Elementary School in Riverview, Fla., on Aug. 10. (Chris O'meara/AP)

An appeals court on Friday sided with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, reinstating for now his ban on mask mandates in the state’s public schools while a lawsuit over the issue moves through the courts.

The decision by the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee reversed a decision by Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper that had temporarily allowed school districts to enforce their mask rules as the court looks at the substance of a lawsuit filed by parents.

Also Friday, the Education Department said its Office for Civil Rights is investigating whether Florida was violating the rights of students with disabilities who are at heightened risk of severe illness from the coronavirus by preventing school districts from requiring masks. The department has opened similar probes in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah.

Biden administration opens civil rights investigations over bans on school mask mandates

The moves mark the latest salvo in a legal back-and-forth over a controversial July 30 executive order by DeSantis (R) prohibiting mask mandates in schools.

The order cited a recently passed Florida law called the Parents’ Bill of Rights. DeSantis said the new law means “we should protect the freedoms and statutory rights of students and parents by resting with the parents the decision whether their children should wear masks in school.” His order said school boards that issued mask mandates could lose state funding.

Many parents have disagreed with DeSantis on the issue of masks in classrooms, and a group of them sued.

Judge Cooper sided with the parents last month. He has said there is nothing in the Parents’ Bill of Rights that would ban mask mandates, noting that it allows districts to take action opposed by parents if it is for the public good.

DeSantis’ office appealed, which led to a stay of the decision. This week, Cooper lifted the stay, prompting another challenge by the governor.

Florida judge rules against DeSantis again, allows schools to require masks

On Friday, though, the appeals court judges said they had “serious doubts” about the case brought by parents against the governor.

“These doubts significantly militate against the likelihood of the appellees’ ultimate success in this appeal,” the ruling says.

DeSantis tweeted his approval of the decision.

“No surprise here — the 1st DCA has restored the right of parents to make the best decision for their children,” DeSantis tweeted. “I will continue to fight for parents’ rights.”

Charles Gallagher, one of the attorneys representing parents who want schools to be able to require masks, said parents in the case want the issue to be removed from the appeals court and instead go straight to the Florida Supreme Court. They filed an appeal Friday evening.

“This appeal requires immediate resolution by the Florida Supreme Court because the underlying issues are of great public importance,” the filing stated.

Arguments that mask mandates violate an individual’s constitutional right to liberty might not cut it with the Supreme Court. Here's why. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Florida is a national hotspot for cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from the delta variant of the coronavirus, including pediatric cases. The mask issue has been hotly and sometimes violently debated at school board meetings around the state.

About a dozen school districts have issued mask mandates despite DeSantis’s order, often after raucous board meetings where some parents pleaded for a mask mandate, while others said the requirement was bad for children.

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

The state has withheld thousands of dollars in school board salary funds for two districts, Alachua and Broward, which were the first to defy the governor’s order. It’s unclear whether the state department of education will keep funds from the other counties that are keeping their mask mandates in place.

The Biden administration has promised to help districts that are penalized by state governments for trying to impose mandates and on Thursday, announced a grant program that would provide additional funding to these districts.

Alachua schools Superintendent Carlee Simon said her district would apply for a grant and she was pleased the money will go directly to districts “because it means we will not have to rely on the state to serve as a go-between.”

Amy Nell, one of the parents suing DeSantis over his prohibition against mask mandates, said she was disappointed but not surprised by the appeals court decision Friday. “It’s a very conservative court,” Nell said.

Nell’s son is in fifth grade at a public school in Hillsborough County, which has a mask mandate. She said most of the students at the school wear masks now as a matter of course.

“We all want covid to go away, but the only way that’s going to happen is with a community effort,” Nell said. “It doesn’t make sense to give up. Covid’s all around us, so we should just plan on getting it? That doesn’t make any sense.”

Meryl Kornfield contributed to this report.