Florida School Mask Mandate Ban Struck Down In Court

Topline

A state judge in Florida struck down Friday the state’s executive order prohibiting school districts from imposing their own mask mandates after a four-day hearing over its fate, ruling they did not have the authority under state law to issue the ban, potentially stopping at least 10 school districts in the state from facing consequences for violating it.

Key Facts

Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled in favor of a group of Florida parents that brought a lawsuit challenging the state’s policy, granting a permanent injunction against the state’s education officials that prohibits them from issuing any blanket bans against school districts imposing their own mask mandates, which will go into effect once a written order is signed in the coming days.

The state had argued that its policy comported with state law and questioned the effectiveness of mask-wearing in schools, alleging the plaintiffs were trying to violate Florida’s “Parents Bill of Rights” by having schools, rather than parents, decide whether their children should wear masks.

Cooper ruled the Florida government didn’t actually have the authority to ban mask mandates under the Parents’ Bill of Rights, because it gives school districts the ability to prove their rules are reasonable limitations on parents’ rights under due process rather than giving the state license to ban them entirely.

Cooper shot down much of the state’s arguments against mask wearing, noting they had selectively quoted from one study to ignore aspects of it that supported mask-wearing and that the executive order against school mask mandates also was “incorrect” by misinterpreting a study that actually recommended universal mask-wearing.

Cooper pointed out that the state law for the past century has only protected people’s personal rights if they don’t harm other people, noting instances like people not being able to drink alcohol and drive or yell fire in a crowded theater, and the debate over mask wearing concerned whether parents’ personal rights to have their children not wear masks “outweigh the risks not wearing a mask places other children in to catching a highly contagious and sometimes deadly disease.”

The judge did not grant the plaintiffs’ arguments that the state violated school districts’ authority to determine their own policies and violated the Florida Constitution’s stipulation for a​​ “uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high-quality system” of public schools, saying there was not enough proof to make those judgements.

Crucial Quote

“Parents’ rights are very important…but they’re not without some limitations,” Cooper said Friday in his ruling, and the state “simply [does] not have that authority” to ban school mask mandates under the Parents’ Bill of Rights. “I am enforcing the bill passed by the legislature and requiring anyone who follows that bill has to follow all of the provisions, not part of the provisions.”

What To Watch For

The state is expected to appeal the ruling against them, and there are still multiple other lawsuits pending over the policy that could potentially result in conflicting rulings over the policy’s legality. The decision will clear the way for the 10 Florida school districts that have already imposed strict mask mandates to keep them in place without facing consequences and potentially spur others to follow in their footsteps. The state had already sanctioned the first two districts that imposed mask mandates and threatened consequences against the eight others that followed suit. “They’re taking away parents’ rights, and there will be consequences,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Wednesday about the districts with mandates.

Big Number

52%. That’s about how many Florida school children are in school districts with strict mask mandates opposed by the state, according to the Washington Post, as the 10 districts with mandates include those covering such major Florida cities as Miami, Orlando, Palm Beach, Tampa, Jacksonville and Tallahassee. Polling suggests a narrow majority of Florida adults disagree with the state ban on school mask mandates, with 54% of respondents in a recent Quinnipiac poll saying schools should be allowed to mandate masks.

Chief Critic

Florida “inherently trusts parents” to make decisions about their children, state attorney Michael Abel said in his closing arguments at the hearing Thursday, arguing the parents “cannot show that [the school mask mandate ban] lacks a rational basis” and that it was based on a “deliberate, thoughtful assessment” of mask-wearing in schools. “Parents know their own children better than their teachers know them. … Better than school district representatives know them,” Abel said. 

Key Background

DeSantis signed his executive order against mask wearing in schools in late July, which directed the state’s departments of education and health to enact rules that would “protect parents’ rights to make decisions regarding masking of their children” in line with Florida’s Parents’ Bill of Rights. The state department of health then created a rule that prohibits school districts from imposing a mask mandate unless it provides an option for parents to opt their children out of the requirement. Florida is one of nine states that has banned or severely restricted school mask mandates, but the state’s policy has been particularly contentious as the start of its new school year coincides with a massive Covid-19 surge that’s ranked among the worst in the world

Tangent

Florida’s Covid-19 outbreak has already proved to have an effect on schools, forcing thousands of students into quarantine due to positive cases and temporarily shutting some down entirely. 

Further Reading

10 Florida School Districts Now Defying DeSantis’ Mask Mandate Ban (Forbes)

Most Florida Residents Polled Support School Mask Mandates As More Districts Oppose State Ban (Forbes)

DeSantis’ ban on school mask mandates under fire as school boards revolt, parents file lawsuits (Orlando Sentinel)

Lawsuit Over Florida School Mask Mandates Now Before Judge (Associated Press)

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