Judge rules against Florida in school mask mandate fight

Kids are wearing facemasks learning in class
The DeSantis administration says it followed its authority under the Parents' Bill of Rights, but the judge said they didn't fully follow it.

A Leon County judge has ruled against Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration’s orders and rules against mask mandates in public schools.

Judge John Cooper in the 2nd Judicial Circuit ruled Friday the state cannot prevent school districts from requiring masks without allowing parents to opt their children out of mask requirements. That policy stemmed from an executive order DeSantis issued late last month, which Cooper called “arbitrary and capricious.”

Additionally, Cooper ordered that the Department of Education cannot enforce masking emergency rules without allowing districts to prove their orders are reasonable.

The order won’t take effect until Cooper issues a written order.

Cooper’s decision followed a week of hearings in a lawsuit from parents hoping to defeat DeSantis’ executive order. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the parents of school children, argues the executive order violates school districts’ constitutional rights to require a uniform.

The ruling ends what is likely just the first act of the legal battle over masks in schools. DeSantis has vowed to appeal Cooper’s ruling.

The parents’ attorneys argued DeSantis “wrongfully assumes that state authorities can better determine the local health risks and educational needs of students and teachers.” But the state’s lawyers stood by DeSantis’ assertion that a parent’s right to opt their children from mask mandates falls within the Parents’ Bill of Rights he signed into law in June.

Parents suing the state hope to “basically nullify” that law, DeSantis said Thursday. However, during his verbal decision Friday, Cooper used the Parents’ Bill of Rights to say the state didn’t fully follow the law.

The mask mandate ban preemptively prohibits mask requirements without allowing school districts to prove the measures are reasonable, he continued.

“The defendants do not have authority under this law to a blanket mandatory ban against a facemask policy that does not provide a parental opt out,” Cooper said.

He disputed the stance taken by DeSantis, who has likened masking children to muzzling them, that there is no scientific proof that masks keep children safe. Cooper highlighted universal masking as a scientifically proven way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, even using evidence the state provided against masking to assert that.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which the judge called the “gold standard” on public health, has recommended that everyone wears masks in schools. The state’s position that masks don’t protect children, rather harms them psychologically and developmentally, is a small minority opinion among health experts, he continued.

“The evidence clearly demonstrates that the recommendation of the CDC for universal masking of students, teachers and staff represents the overwhelming consensus of scientists, medical doctors and medical organizations,” Cooper said.

The Governor’s Office criticized Cooper’s ruling, saying he sided with politicians over parents’ rights.

“This ruling was made with incoherent justifications, not based in science and facts — frankly not even remotely focused on the merits of the case presented,” Communications Director Taryn Fenske said.

DOE’s Communications Director Jared Ochs said the department was disappointed in the decision and that it discards the rule of law.

“This decision conflicts with basic and established rights of parents to make private health care and education decisions for children,” Ochs said.

More than half of Florida’s public school students attend schools that require masks for everyone. Indian River, Leon and Orange county schools are some of the latest to flout the executive order and emergency rules.

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.

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.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved COVID-19 vaccines for children under 12.

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.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democratic candidate for Governor, called the ruling common sense.

“Governor, it’s past time to walk away from this ridiculous, politically motivated fight and focus instead on working together to protect the people of Florida by encouraging scientifically-proven vaccines and mask guidelines,” she said in a statement. “I’m proud to continue to stand with the brave local officials and families who have been fighting for what the court today affirmed is right.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, who also hopes to challenge the Governor in 2022, called the ruling a win for Florida.

“This verdict helps keep our schools and economy open, while continuing to protect lives,” Crist said.

Renzo Downey

Renzo Downey covers state government for Florida Politics. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2019, Renzo began his reporting career in the Lone Star State, covering state government for the Austin American-Statesman. Shoot Renzo an email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @RenzoDowney.


23 comments

  • Sonja Fitch

    August 27, 2021 at 1:04 pm

    Common Good prevails! Protection and prevention prevail! Desantis has willingly slaughtered Floridians and our Children! Lock up Duffus Desantis! Get out murderer Nazi wannabe Duffus Desantis!

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      August 27, 2021 at 7:20 pm

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  • PeterH

    August 27, 2021 at 1:12 pm

    DeSantis and parents DO NOT HAVE THE RIGHT to allow their children to infect others. The rights of the uninfected trump stupidity.

    What we need in Florida with its 50% vaccination rates is the enforcement of vaccine passports to separate the vaccinated from the unvaccinated.

    COVID is not going away. It won’t be “going away in the Spring with warmer weather!” COVID won’t be going away “with Trump’s failed Hydroxychloroquine recommended malaria drug!” And DeSantis’s REGENERON cocktail is not a cure for the virus.

    People need to wake up and get vaccinated, social distance, wear a mask and protect themselves and their neighbors.

    Stop listening to the stupids!

    • Jerry

      August 27, 2021 at 1:32 pm

      Bro, no one stops you from separating yourself from the rest of the population. If you are that terrified of the virus, then go wear your mask, get your vaccine, sit home, and shut up! Seriously. Stay away from everyone if you are that scared.

      But we are NOT going to become a Nazi society and start separating mass groups of people by force for a virus that 99.5% of us will survive if we catch it. And we certainly won’t do it based on a vaccine that doesn’t stop the spread at all! Lots of vaccinated people are getting it. So me getting the vaccine won’t stop you from catching the virus. There is no point.

      I have antibodies. I tested for it. And I have discussed it with my doctor. I don’t need the vaccine as long as I have the antibodies.. I’m not going to get the shot. That is my choice because this is my body. I decide what gets injected in it…not you and certainly not the damn government!

      • Alex

        August 27, 2021 at 1:40 pm

        So much typing just to prove your profound ignorance .

        Yawn.

      • PeterH

        August 27, 2021 at 1:41 pm

        Jerry …. When you and your family get sick with the virus ….please bet on that 99.5% fake news meaningless statistic ….. please stay at home and don’t burden our already exhausted health care system with your unvaccinated FREEDUMB nonsense!

        The vaccine passport system is already successfully in place! I’m traveling in September and hotels along the way ARE REQUIRING PROOF OF VACCINATION to check in. Against the dictates from our incompetent governor ….. THE CRUISE SHIP INDUSTRY is demanding vaccination. Soon theaters and restaurants will follow.

        • Jerry

          August 27, 2021 at 2:05 pm

          My family has already had this. I’ve already had it. This virus doesn’t scare me! I’m sorry but the fear porn won’t work on me! I got this virus and only had a stuffy nose for 2 days. That’s literally it!!!

          And I swear to all that is holy that I will not under any circumstances get this vaccine. Period! End of story. It’s not going to happen.

          I’ve already had discussions with my employer and the company will not be mandating it. They’ve already said they won’t be. And from discussions I’ve had with other several businesses, they won’t be mandating it either. So please stop with the fear porn that everyone is going to do it. They aren’t. There is nothing whatsoever you can say to convince me to get this genetic cocktail. Nothing! I have made the decision not to get it and discussed it with my doctor. That’s my choice.

          • Alex

            August 27, 2021 at 2:24 pm

            You need a new doctor.

            Yours is a quack.

      • Phil Morton

        August 27, 2021 at 1:53 pm

        Don’t wear a mask, don’t get the vaccine stay at home and shut up. We’ve got our lives to live without being endangered by you.

        • Alex

          August 27, 2021 at 1:58 pm

          Another ignorant person chimes in.

        • Jerry

          August 27, 2021 at 2:10 pm

          If you are vaccinated, what do you have to worry about?

          Seriously if the vaccine is effective and keeps you out of the hospital, why are you so angry at people who choose not to get it? It makes no sense. The vaccine doesn’t stop the spread. Look at how many vaccinated people are getting it! I could get the vaccine and still be infected and still infect you! It makes no difference to you!

          This isn’t like polio or smallpox or measles where those vaccines stop the spread. This COVID vaccine does not stop the spread!

          • Alex

            August 27, 2021 at 2:22 pm

            Lol

            More profound ignorance.

      • JD

        August 27, 2021 at 2:34 pm

        In an effort not to derail too far off topic, DeSantis is telling people to vaccinated is my understanding.

        And to your reply about vaccines being mandated for certain activities, while I think it is an interesting legal idea on the “I have anti-bodies” as a defense, I wonder how much there is in precedent on that angle? I suspect uncharted but could become a defense with enough evidence.

        Right now, it probably would be easier to get a religious or health exemption instead.

        Regardless, the article was about the legality of banning mask mandates in public schools without an opt-out clause using the “Parents Rights” Law.

        In watching the verbal ruling stream, I found it interesting this judge seems to think the state did not apply the law correctly in the executive order, mostly because they did not apply the full context of the law as written to the ban. The crux of the argument from the Governor is the parent’s rights law is why this potentially could be not good for the office.

        And while the judge did not include the evidence about masking science in his order, but he noted the state cited a study (the Brown Study) in their evidence and the study itself said it was incomplete and one should not act upon it. This could potentially look bad for the state, as it looks like they didn’t do their due diligence (i.e. someone didn’t read the study in full).

        At the end of the day, he would not go against DeSantis’ order directly, but he did remove his ability to have other departments enforce actions against schools employing mandates w/o opt-outs. There’s probably a more legal eagle reason for this, but on the surface it goes back to his point about “separation of powers”, I suspect.

        Regardless, the judge said it will get firmed up in the written version and this ruling will go before an appeals (DeSantis has said he would).

        We will see how it rolls in the 1st district on appeals.

        • PeterH

          August 27, 2021 at 3:00 pm

          Great points JD.

          The fact that Governor DeSantis ignored or failed to study and evaluate prior similar rulings before issuing their mask-in-school edict does make them look bad or incompetent.

          From the judges’s narrative:

          “ …..The judge also noted that two Florida Supreme Court decisions from 1914 and 1939 found that individual rights are limited by their impact on the rights of others. For example, he said, adults have the right to drink alcohol but not to drive drunk. There is a right to free speech, but not to harass or threaten others or yell “fire” in a crowded theater, he said.

          “We don’t have that right because exercising the right in that way is harmful or potentially harmful to other people,” Cooper said. He added that the law “is full of examples of rights that are limited (when) the good of others … would be adversely affected by those rights.”

          I feel certain that this unsuccessful Education edict will open new legal challenges that this Governor and other red state governors would like to avoid …..

      • Jake

        August 27, 2021 at 4:45 pm

        1. Drunks do not get to drive cars. It is THEY who need to stay home, not those who drive sober. Same with those refusing to wear masks. Their refusal endangers others, some of whom can’t yet get vaccinated (like kids).
        2. The percentage of vaccinated people getting sick is still very low in comparison to the unvaccinated.
        3. Why do you not complain about having to have had vaccinations for childhood illnesses to go to school? No difference here. Have we been a “nazi” country for the last 60 or so years? Was President George Washington the equivalent of a nazi when he required soldiers to be vaccinated against smallpox (and yes, there was an early vaccination for that.)
        4. Again, your political petulance should not be allowed to sicken others. YOU are the one who should isolate away from others.

        • Jake

          August 27, 2021 at 4:53 pm

          I might add that this case was about DeSantis executive order that banned school districts from enacting mask mandates. It had nothing to do with vaccines. The issue was whether DeSantis exceeded his authority under the state constitution. The court ruled he did.

          But now that a vaccine is FDA approved, the same could be said about it. As to whether the gov’t can mandate a vaccine ? Yes, in fact it can. Vaccine mandates were ruled constitutional by SCOTUS in 1905.

    • John

      August 27, 2021 at 5:56 pm

      Florida is at 66% vaccination rate and seniors over 65 @ 86%. Certainly adults can choose to mask or not unless mandated by a business or service as condition,. Businesses and workplaces should be able to set standards. Kids really have statistically zero risk of death to one decimal place, ie, mortality risk , CFR is lower than one in 1000, actually nearer 1 in 2000.

  • Alex

    August 27, 2021 at 1:34 pm

    Good.

    Mask the kids now Florida, and let us hope the Delta spike ends quickly before DesAnus can come up with a way to start endangering our kids health and lives again.

    You can count on the fact all his little dick energy is focused on it.

  • Gertie

    August 27, 2021 at 4:16 pm

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  • Tom Palmer

    August 27, 2021 at 6:28 pm

    Another blow to Gov. DeSantis’ campaign to characterize everyone who opposes his anti-mask and lukewarm vaccine statements as part of the left-wing socialist agenda, according to his latest fund-raising letter. He has been a disappointment.

    • Andrew Finn

      August 27, 2021 at 7:07 pm

      DeSantis being a “disappointment” is putting it mildly.

  • Andrew Finn

    August 27, 2021 at 7:11 pm

    Well, I guess Judge Cooper is going to “stand in your way” Emperor DeSantis !!!! Finally someone puts a stop to the lunacy of his anti-mask edict. Now the school people can protect the children of Florida without fear of “retribution from the Emperor” when they are doing their jobs. There’s your ruling —- eat it Ronnie !!!!

Comments are closed.


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