The science for and against school mask mandates is under scrutiny in state court as a group of parents hope to defeat Florida’s school mask mandate ban.
Monday marked the first trial date in a legal challenge to Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ executive order banning school districts from requiring masks for all students. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the parents of school children, argues the executive order violates school districts’ constitutional rights to require a uniform.
Because public school classrooms are already open across the state, Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper prioritized the trial. A decision is expected Thursday.
The parents argue DeSantis “wrongfully assumes that state authorities can better determine the local health risks and educational needs of students and teachers.” But the Governor stands by his assertion that a parent’s right to opt their children from mask mandates falls within the Parents’ Bill of Rights he signed into law earlier this year.
The delta variant has made the COVID-19 pandemic drastically worse, said Charles Dodson, an attorney representing the parents. Evidence shows it’s much more contagious, and the disease targets children and adults alike.
“We are not asking the Governor to mandate masks but only that he allow local school boards to do so without punishment should they so choose,” Dodson said.
Additionally, evidence shows masks mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including among children, he continued. Schools aren’t safe unless everyone is wearing a mask.
“This order by the Governor, and the accompanying rule, were arbitrary and capricious efforts to accomplish something very dangerous to our children,” Dodson said.
Amy Nell, a Tampa mom who is part of the lawsuit, said she would love parents to have the right to choose whether their children wear masks. However, she called the masking matter a community issue.
“I take very seriously that I am my brother’s keeper,” she said. “We are in this together. This isn’t going away without involvement from the community.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved COVID-19 vaccines for children under 12.
Coincidentally, after apologizing for repeatedly coughing into her mic, one attorney representing the parents noted she caught COVID-19 from her preschooler.
The state’s defense includes research from Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, a Stanford medical professor DeSantis has featured on multiple occasions. Past school mask requirements did little to prevent the community spread of COVID-19, his research says.
Moreover, past evidence shows children are at little risk to catch and spread the virus, according to Bhattacharya. Masking also increases anxiety and decreases learning and developmental outcomes in children.
However, Dodson noted the state’s scientific defense is based on research before the delta variant became the nation’s most prominent strain of the virus, around July.
Michael Abel, a DeSantis attorney, said the Governor’s order and the Department of Health’s emergency rules provide “certainty and consistency to school districts.” He noted many have no intention of imposing mask mandates.
“We understand the plaintiffs want mask mandates. And to try to achieve this goal, the plaintiffs come into court and argue the executive order and emergency rule improperly deny local school districts some perceived right of self-governance, that somehow state government has trampled on the rights of local school districts,” Abel said.
The State Board of Education last week ruled that Alachua and Broward county school districts were violating state law with their mask mandates. State Board Chair Tom Grady suggested suspending district administrators that violate state law, a follow-up to the DeSantis administration’s threats to withhold the pay of offending administrators.
As of Friday, Leon, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Sarasota county school districts have joined Alachua and Broward in flouting the state mask mandate ban. Sarasota County is the first county won by former President Donald Trump to violate the state’s law. The Orange County School Board is considering implementing its own mask mandate.
According to the Florida Department of Health, 20,331 children under the age of 12 tested positive for COVID-19 Aug. 13-19.
The latest total marks a sizable increase from the report prior. From Aug. 6 to Aug. 12, DOH reported 16,754 new COVID-19 cases among the same demographic.
Parents of children with disabilities have filed a separate challenge to DeSantis’ executive order. That lawsuit argues the state’s rules violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.