Judge rejects DeSantis ban on compulsory masks in Florida schools

TALLAHASSEE – Governor Ron DeSantis’ ban on compulsory masks in public schools was rejected Friday by a Tallahassee judge who ruled the governor exceeded his authority, misinterpreted state law and ignored scientific evidence by issuing his prescription.

The ruling, for now, eases pressure state officials have placed on Palm Beach County public schools and nine other Florida school districts that have defied his order and imposed masks on all students , with the exception of those benefiting from a medical exemption.

As the new school year approaches, DeSantis demanded that counties allow parents to remove their children from mask requirements. But circuit judge John Cooper has ruled that school boards have the power to require all students to wear face coverings.

The judge said DeSantis was wrong in determining the state’s new “Parents Bill of Rights” law – the provision on which he based his ordinance – prohibited school districts from adopting such warrants.

“Florida law does not allow (state officials) to punish school boards for adopting a face mask warrant,” Cooper said, explaining his decision for more than two hours in a hearing before the Zoom court.

Cooper’s decision follows a four-day lawsuit, following a lawsuit filed by parents challenging DeSantis’ order banning compulsory school masks.

Boca Raton Complainant: “Common Sense Has Prevailed In The State of Florida”

The nationally watched decision was praised by Palm Beach County school administrators and a Boca Raton mother who was a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

“In the end, we won, we prevailed,” said Lesley Abravanel, mother of two at Calusa Elementary School who was among 12 parents who took the lawsuit. “Parents, science and common sense have prevailed in the state of Florida.”

Palm Beach County Superintendent of Schools Mike Burke called the move “encouraging,” saying it appears to be preventing the DeSantis administration from following through on threats to withhold state money for. salaries of school boards and superintendents.

“This decision appears to support the idea that (school) boards have the constitutional power to ensure the health, safety and well-being of students and, for now, appears to preclude the governor from being able to ban the terms of facial coverage, ”he said. in a report.

After starting the school year with optional masks, the Palm Beach County School Board reversed the course last week and required masks for all students except those with medical exemption in under federal disability laws. The mandate came into effect on Monday.

DeSantis spokesperson: judge ruled against “parents’ rights”

A DeSantis spokeswoman said on Friday he would appeal Cooper’s decision to the 1st District Court of Appeals, whose 15 members were all appointed by Republican governors, including three by DeSantis.

“It’s no surprise that Justice Cooper speaks out against parents’ rights and their ability to make the best educational and medical decisions for their families, in favor of elected politicians,” said Taryn Fenske, the governor’s communications director .

“This decision was made with inconsistent justifications, not based on science and facts – frankly not even remotely focused on the merits of the case presented,” she added.

Fenske pointed out that another judge in Leon last year blocked DeSantis’ plans for the schools to reopen in person, only to have an initial DCA panel with the governor – paving the way for the reopening.

She said the administration is “confident that we will prevail over the merits of the case” before the appeals court.

Cooper, however, pointed out that the state policy pushed by DeSantis collides with what he called the “gold standard” for public health: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose guidelines call it all. the world in K-12 schools to wear a mask regardless of their immunization status.

The CDC’s recommendation came as the virulent delta variant of the virus began infecting millions of people around the world, regardless of their age.

Judge: masks are not “child abuse”

But a July roundtable hosted by DeSantis just before he enacted his mandatory mask ban featured a psychologist calling face coverings “child abuse” and what Cooper found was a misinterpretation of the research. scientist on the benefits of masks in schools.

Parents in half a dozen Florida counties have sued the governor, claiming his ban violates the state constitution, which not only demands a “safe” public school system, but also gives school boards the power to ” operate, control and supervise schools in their districts.

Lawsuit by Parents in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Alachua Counties Says DeSantis “Wrongly Assumes State Authorities Can Better Determine Local Health Risks and Student Educational Needs and teachers ”.

A Quinnipiac University poll of Florida voters released this week showed 51% disapproved of the governor’s response to COVID-19, with 46% supporting it. His management of public schools elicited a similar response, with 51% of survey respondents disapproving and 44% approving.

DeSantis wants the decisions about wearing the mask to be left to the parents. But 10 counties in Florida – including Orange and Indian River, whose school boards just took action Tuesday while the lawsuit was underway – now impose masks, except for students who present a doctor’s note.

Along with Orange and Indian River, counties bypassing DeSantis rule include Alachua, Duval, Sarasota, Leon, Broward, Palm Beach, Miami-Dade, and Hillsborough. Together, they make up more than half of Florida’s 2.9 million schoolchildren.

More counties could adopt similar broad policies following Friday’s ruling as COVID-19 cases explode in Florida.

The state Board of Education has threatened to withhold salaries from superintendents and school boards in counties that do not follow the governor’s policy. But an injunction granted by Cooper as part of his ruling would prevent the state from attempting to impose penalties on districts due to mask requirements.

Florida has recorded an average of 22,556 cases per day over the past week, among the highest levels seen during the pandemic. With the state’s population still vaccinated at just 52%, there are more than 17,000 Floridians hospitalized with COVID-19.

Democrats and allied organizations hailed Cooper’s decision, saying it was well-motivated and followed Florida law. He also had public safety in mind, they said.

“This decision is a victory for common sense, for the safety of children and for all families and school officials who are fighting to protect their loved ones, students and staff,” said Secretary of State at Agriculture, Nikki Fried, a Democrat who challenges DeSantis. for the governor next year.

“Governor, it is high time to step away from this ridiculous, politically motivated fight and instead focus on working together to protect the people of Florida by promoting scientifically proven vaccines and mask guidelines,” he said. she declared.

Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said the judge’s ruling was one of many steps needed to improve Florida schools. Federal funding is available and not spent by Florida lawmakers, which could improve classrooms and ventilation and make them safe for students during the pandemic, he said.

Spar said it was up to DeSantis to do more.

“Gov. DeSantis has the ability to help make Florida schools safe today, ”said Spar. “It just seems like he doesn’t have the will.”

US Representative Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg, another Democrat defying DeSantis, called the decision a victory over the governor’s “tyranny and reckless leadership”.

Crist added that the decision “will help communities do what medical experts know is essential to keep our schools and economy open, while protecting vulnerable Floridians.”

In its executive order, DeSantis banned county school boards from requiring face coverings when students returned to class in August, saying the decision about wearing the mask was up to parents alone.

He cited the new “Parents’ Bill of Rights” law that he recently signed as one of the reasons for the move, while questioning what the ordinance said was the “ongoing debate over whether if the masks are more harmful than beneficial for children “.

But Cooper said DeSantis was only selectively using parts of scientific studies in its attempt to justify the ban. Much of the research cited by the governor actually recommended masks in schools.

Likewise, addressing the Parents Bill of Rights, Cooper said it does not ban mask warrants or allow the governor to ban schools from adopting a requirement. In contrast, Cooper said the law affirms the right of school boards to take action consistent with CDC guidelines.

“The evidence submitted by (the governor) reflects, I think, a minority, perhaps even a small minority of medical and scientific opinion,” Cooper said.

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About Mark A. Tomlin

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