Judge blocks DeSantis ban on mask mandates

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis overstepped his authority when he sought to block school districts from implementing student mask mandates, according to a Friday court ruling.

Judge John C. Cooper of Florida’s 2nd Judicial Circuit Court in Leon County sided in favor of the plaintiffs—a group of parents from Alachua, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Palm Beach counties—in a case that has drawn widespread interest in Florida and beyond. Cooper’s decision prohibits enforcement of the governor’s July executive order that ordered the state departments of health and education to craft rules to bar local school boards from adopting face mask mandates without a parental opt-out provision.

On Aug. 3, the School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) initiated a mandatory mask mandate for students and staff the first two weeks of school and later extended its policy for an additional eight weeks. In response, the Florida Department of Education has threatened to withhold funding equivalent to the salaries of the four school board members who voted for the mandate.

“The law expressly permits school boards to adopt policies regarding the health care of students, such as a facemask mandate, even if a parent disagrees with that policy,” Cooper said in a lengthy verbal opinion delivered from the bench.

The state argued that its policy complied with Florida’s Parents’ Bill of Rights law that the Legislature passed earlier this year, but Cooper disagreed, saying DeSantis’ order “is without legal authority.” He granted a permanent injunction against the Florida Department of Education from issuing any bans against school districts to impose mask mandates.

Cooper, after hearing four days of testimony from doctors and parents on both sides, concluded that the majority of experts and facts pointed to universal masking being the most effective form of not spreading the COVID virus, especially the new delta variant that has proven to be more contagious and dangerous among children than the initial virus from 2020.

“The CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the wide majority of the medical and scientific community in this country recommend universal indoor masking for all school students, staff, teachers and visitors in K-12 schools regardless of vaccination status and social distancing,” he said.

Cooper also named a list of CDC recommendations that the state of Florida has adopted and incorporated into state health policy and statutes.

“This is not an exhaustive list, but just some of what I have found,” Cooper said. “Not only do the doctors who testified here recognize the Center for Disease Control, but so has the Florida Legislature for many years.”

Cooper said parents who want their children to not wear a mask can go to a doctor to sign a medical opt-out.

Alachua County Public Schools Superintendent Carlee Simon said she was “extremely gratified” by Cooper’s decision. 

“His ruling is a validation of the right of locally-elected school boards to protect their students and communities during this crisis without fear of political or financial retribution,” she said in a statement release Friday evening. “Just as importantly, the ruling is a victory for students in Alachua County and across Florida, all of whom have the right to attend safe schools.”

Meanwhile, the state immediately signaled plans to appeal the decision.

“It’s not surprising that Judge Cooper would rule against parent’s rights and their ability to make the best educational and medical decisions for their family, but instead rule in favor of elected politicians,” said Taryn Fenske, DeSantis’ communications director, said in a Friday statement. “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.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated. Previous stories related to this story include:

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