A Leon County judge has reversed a stay that kept the school mask mandate ban active as an appeals court debates whether to reinstate Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ order banning mask mandates in public schools.
DeSantis’ attorneys last week asked the 1st District Court of Appeal to overturn Circuit Court Judge John Cooper‘s ruling that invalidated his executive order and prevented the Department of Education from enforcing it. In a follow-up hearing Wednesday, Cooper lifted an automatic stay that halted his ruling because of the pending appeal.
Cooper decided to keep his ruling in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the likely quick turnaround from the appeals court. Moreover, the state was unable to prove how lifting the stay would cause it harm.
“We have a variant that is more infectious and more dangerous to children than we had last year,” Cooper said.
The judge stood by the science, which the state rejects, showing masks can help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in schools. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend universal masking in schools.
“We have children who can’t be protected by vaccination, and the CDC and the American Pediatrics Association and every single witness who testified who is a practicing medical doctor in this case said that children are at risk and they provide at least some protection by masking,” Cooper said.
The DeSantis administration filed an emergency motion to reinstate the stay Wednesday evening.
“No surprise here that Judge Cooper concluded that he is unlikely to be overruled on appeal,” DeSantis spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said in a statement. “We (unsurprisingly) disagree. Today we plan to file our emergency motion to reinstate the stay, and we anticipate the appellate court will rule quickly, much like during the school re-opening case last year.”
Speaking in Palm Coast earlier Wednesday, DeSantis told reporters that state and federal trial courts in Tallahassee typically rules against his administration when there’s a “political component” to the cases, adding that they win appeals.
“I don’t know why the masks have politics around it,” DeSantis said. “Let the parents make the decision that’s best for their kids. If you want the masks, do it. If you don’t, don’t. That’s fine.”
But Cooper rejected the characterization that he would inevitably rule against DeSantis.
“If you look at my record, it’s not someone who runs all over the place ruling against the Governor,” Cooper said. “What it is, I think, is a record of somebody who tries to figure out what the law is and rule in accordance to the law, because that’s my job. I’m not a policy maker, and I think my actions prove that.”
Although he has served on the court since 2003, Cooper had never lifted a stay on one of his decisions, he noted. The first time he was overturned, he had ruled in favor of Gov. Jeb Bush, he added.
In the initial lawsuit, the suing 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. That law provides parents freedom from the state and public schools in how they raise their children, including regarding health matters.
However, Cooper said the state ignored the full Parents’ Bill of Rights. The mask mandate ban preemptively prohibits mask requirements without allowing school districts to prove the measures are reasonable, a step he said the bill required.
The state cannot enforce a blanket ban against mandatory face masks by school boards, he wrote. The same goes for a statewide order, like the Governor’s. School boards must first be given the chance to prove their policies were reasonable before they can be punished.