Florida Judge Rules That Governor Overstepped Authority in Banning School Mask Mandates

A group of parents won the first round on Aug. 27 in a state circuit court in a dispute with the governor and state education agencies over the ability of school boards to require all students to wear masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

5 minute read

August 30, 2021, 5:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

Two young people wear masks while standing outside in Florida.

Microfile.org / Shutterstock

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis had argued that he was acting on behalf of Florida's parents by issuing an executive order on July 30 that banned school districts from requiring all students to wear masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. However, it was parents from several counties that filed suit [pdf] on behalf of their children on August 6 against DeSantis, education commissioner Richard Corcoran, the Florida Department of Education, and the Florida Board of Education

On Friday, Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper "granted relief to parents on two counts from their complaint, finding the governor and the Department of Education exceeded their legal authority by blocking mask policies wholesale," report Evan Donovan and  Sam Sachs for Tampa-based WFLA-TV on Friday. The outcome on all six counts of the plaintiffs' lawsuit is listed at the end of the source article.

“The actions of the defendants do not pass constitutional muster, because they seek to deprive the school boards in advance, of their rights,” Cooper said.

The ruling ending a week-long trial of acrimonious cross-examination of public health experts and heartfelt pleadings from mothers on both sides of the mask issue. However, the order will not take effect until the written order comes next week.

According to the Associated Press, elected school board members of ten school districts voted to defy the executive order and mandate universal masking "with no parental opt-out." The parents' lawsuit involves two themes that have surfaced repeatedly since the start of the pandemic in the United States.

What was clear from Cooper's ruling is that he "followed the science" as reported by WFLA.

When weighing his decision, Cooper compared the previous version of COVID-19 that swept Florida in 2020 to the crisis of the delta variant in 2021, as well as the changes made to how the state has responded to the pandemic since its start.

“The combination of lack of vaccination, decrease in social distancing, and the delta variant has resulted in a dramatically increased spread of COVID in Florida over the past few months," Cooper said.

Florida again the pandemic epicenter

In fact, the Sunshine State once again finds itself the epicenter of the summer surge, leading the nation in the three key Covid metrics, although Gov. DeSantis dismissed his state's Covid crisis last month as being a 'seasonal' issue.

  • Florida leads the nation in daily new cases, averaging 22,870 on Aug. 28, followed by Texas with 15,314 and California with 12,915, according to The New York Times coronavirus tracker. It also ranks first in case incidence, averaging 106 daily be cases per 100,000 people. Mississippi is second with 103 per 100k. Louisiana and Kentucky are third with 92 per 100k. The national average is 47 per 100k. 
  • Florida leads the nation with almost 17,000 residents hospitalized with Covid-19 on Aug. 28, followed by Texas and California respectively. The rate is also the nation's highest: 79 per 100,000 residents, followed by Alabama (60 per 100k) and Mississippi (58 per 100k). The national hospitalization rate is 30 per 100k.
  • Florida leads the nation in Covid deaths, averaging 247 on Aug. 28, followed by Texas (193) and California (83). Only Mississippi and Louisiana have a higher death rate.
  • While Florida ranks highest in two of the three key metrics and third in the death rate, the vaccination level is the same as the national average, with 52% of its population fully vaccinated.

The law behind the executive order

DeSantis's executive order referenced a new statute passed by the legislature in April,  the Parents' Bill of Rights.

"The defense also argued that the newly enacted Parents Bill of Rights precludes local school districts from mandating masks against a parent’s wishes," reported Daniel Figueroa IV for WMNF, Florida's first community radio station. "The law was seen as a major victory for Republicans during this year’s legislative session."

Cooper said that a full reading of the statute shows school districts have due process rights. Those rights means if a parent has an issue with a regulation, the school board has the right to demonstrate why that regulation is necessary.

“It doesn’t ban mask mandates. At all. It doesn’t require that a mask mandate must include a parental opt out. At All.”

Listen to Figueroa's 3-minute audio report that includes Cooper's comments, including where he refutes the defendants' claims that masks are ineffective at mitigating viral transmission.

Cooper also added a personal touch, noted by Patricia Mazzei in her report on the trial for The New York Times.

“I’m a parent — parents’ rights are very important,” Judge Cooper said. “But they’re not without some reasonable limitation, depending upon safety, reasonableness and a compelling state need.”

The ruling, delivered over nearly two hours on Friday, came after a high-profile trial was held via Zoom over the course of four days this week. At one point, more than 2,000 people watched Judge Cooper deliver his ruling in a livestream on YouTube.

Defendants will appeal

"We are used to the Leon County Circuit Court not following the law and getting reversed on appeal, which is exactly what happened last year in the school reopening case,"  noted a response from the Governor’s Office near the end of the source article.

"We will continue to defend the law and parent’s rights in Florida, and will immediately appeal the ruling to the First District Court of Appeals, where we are confident we will prevail on the merits of the case."

DeSantis surprisingly won an unrelated coronavirus litigation lawsuit on July 23 dealing with CDC's regulation of cruise ships after he appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The state Department of Education also signaled their intent to appeal the decision, according to the Times.

“This decision conflicts with basic and established rights of parents to make private health care and education decisions for children," said Jared M. Ochs, a spokesman. 

Other states

"As of Aug. 25, eight states had prohibited school districts from setting mask requirements," according to Education Week. "Fifteen states and the District of Columbia require masks be worn in schools."

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