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.