Federal judge upholds DeSantis mask order

A federal judge this week upheld Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order aimed at preventing school districts from implementing mask mandates.

Judge K. Michael Moore denied a request by parents of disabled children for a preliminary injunction against the July 30 executive order. The executive order instructed the Florida departments of health and education to issue rules that would require districts to allow parents to opt out of any student mask mandates, citing the Parents’ Bill of Rights.

The federal lawsuit argued that the executive order violates the Americans with Disabilities Act because children with disabilities are more susceptible to serious illness or death from COVID-19.

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Moore wrote in his 34-page ruling that the plaintiffs—including one student in Alachua County—should have pursued administrative claims before the lawsuit. The law requires that any relief sought under the ADA must come after relief is sought under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Moore wrote.

The plaintiffs had argued that exhaustion of administrative claims under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act would have been futile, but Moore rejected that claim.

“The Court finds all Plaintiffs would be substantially benefited by pursuing administrative remedies that can provide tailored solutions to each child’s individual needs,” Moore wrote.

While noting “highly individualized concerns” of the plaintiffs, Moore wrote that, “it is not even clear that Plaintiffs’ requested relief would alleviate many of the concerns raised by Plaintiffs in their affidavits.”

The ruling was a victory for DeSantis and Florida Department of Education (FDOE) officials who have faced challenges in state and federal courts contending that the decision for children to wear masks should be left to parents and not school districts.

Last month the FDOE began garnishing wages of school board members who voted for universal mask mandates. Some districts have bucked the state and are only allowing students to opt out of mask requirements if they have a doctor’s note.

At the state level, the legal rulings have swung back and forth since Judge John C. Cooper of Florida’s 2nd Judicial Circuit Court in Leon County issued a verbal ruling on Aug. 27 saying that DeSantis had overstepped his authority when he banned school districts from requiring mask mandates.

On Sept. 3, after the judge delivered his written decision, the state filed an appeal, triggering an automatic stay of his ruling. Then on Sept. 8, Cooper granted a motion to vacate the stay, allowing school board mask mandates to remain in effect and preventing the state from punishing school districts for doing so.

But everything flipped again on Sept. 10, when the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee reinstated the ban on school mask mandates, saying Cooper should not have lifted the automatic stay.

Alachua County is one of a handful of school districts that has required masks and defied DeSantis and the FDOE’s parental opt-out requirement.

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