TALLAHASSEE – Governor Ron DeSantis’ ban on wearing masks in public schools was lifted Friday by a Tallahassee judge who ruled the governor exceeded his powers, misinterpreted state laws and ignored scientific evidence in issuing his order.
For the time being, the ruling eases the pressure state officials put on Palm Beach County public schools and nine other Florida school districts for defying its order and requiring masks for all students except those with medical exemptions.
At the beginning of the new school year, DeSantis demanded that the counties allow parents to refuse their children from the mask requirement. But District Judge John Cooper ruled that school authorities have the power to require all students to wear face covers.
The judge said DeSantis was wrong in determining the state’s new “parental rights” law – the provision on which he based his order – that prohibited school districts from issuing such mandates.
“Florida law doesn’t allow (state officials) to punish school officials for accepting a face mask mandate,” Cooper said, explaining his ruling over more than two hours in a Zoom trial.
Cooper’s ruling followed a four-day trial following a lawsuit filed by parents contesting DeSantis’ order banning compulsory school masks.
Boca Raton plaintiff: “Florida state was common sense”
The ruling, observed nationwide, was praised by Palm Beach County school administrators and a Boca Raton mother who was a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
“The bottom line was we won, we prevailed,” said Lesley Abravanel, a mother of two Calusa elementary school students who was among the 12 parents who sued. “Parents, science, and common sense ruled the state of Florida.”
Palm Beach County Schools principal Mike Burke called the decision “encouraging” and said it would appear to prevent the DeSantis administration from heeding its threats to withhold state funds for school board and principal salaries.
“This ruling seems to support the idea that board members have constitutional powers to ensure the health, safety and welfare of students and seems to prevent the governor from banning face-covering mandates for the time being,” he said in a statement.
After the school year began with optional masks, the Palm Beach County School Board reversed course last week, requiring masks for all students except those with a medical exception under federal disability law. The mandate came into force on Monday.
DeSantis spokeswoman: judge ruled against “parental rights”
A DeSantis spokeswoman said Friday that he would appeal Cooper’s ruling to the First District Court of Appeals, whose 15 members were all appointed by Republican governors, including three from DeSantis.
“It is not surprising that Judge Cooper ruled against parents’ rights and their ability to make the best educational and medical decisions for their families in favor of elected politicians,” said Taryn Fenske, the governor’s communications director.
“That judgment was made on incoherent reasoning that was not based on science and fact – frankly, not even remotely focused on the merits of the case,” she added.
Fenske pointed out that another Leon judge blocked DeSantis’ plans to reopen schools in person last year just to have an initial DCA panel page with the governor – paving the way for the reopening.
She said the administration was “confident that we will win the case in the appeals court.”
Cooper pointed out, however, that the government policy being promoted by DeSantis collides with what he called the “gold standard” for public health: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose guidelines all call for in K-12 schools to wear a mask regardless of their vaccination status.
The CDC’s recommendation came when the virulent Delta variant of the virus began infecting millions around the world, regardless of age.
Judge: masks are not “child abuse”
But a round table organized by DeSantis in July, just before it imposed its mandatory mask ban, showed a psychologist calling face coverings “child abuse,” and what Cooper found was a misinterpretation of scientific research into the benefits of masks in schools.
Parents from half a dozen Florida counties sued the governor, saying his ban violates the state’s constitution, which not only mandates a “safe” public school system, but also gives school authorities the authority to control schools in their counties and supervise.
The lawsuit brought by parents in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Alachua counties argues that DeSantis “mistakenly believes that state agencies can better identify local health risks and the educational needs of students and teachers.”
A Quinnipiac University poll of Florida voters released this week showed 51% oppose the governor’s response to COVID-19, with 46% supporting it. His dealings with public schools generated a similar reaction, with 51% of respondents disagreeing and 44% agreeing.
DeSantis wants parents to make decisions about wearing masks. But 10 Florida counties – including Orange and Indian River, whose school authorities just took action Tuesday during the ongoing trial – are now mandating masks, except for students who produce medical certificates.
In addition to Orange and Indian River, Alachua, Duval, Sarasota, Leon, Broward, Palm Beach, Miami-Dade, and Hillsborough counties that bypass DeSantis rule. Together they represent more than half of Florida’s 2.9 million school children.
Other counties could enact similar general guidelines following Friday’s decision, with COVID-19 cases increasing in Florida.
The state education committee has threatened to withhold the salaries of school principals and school boards in counties that do not adhere to the governor’s policies. But a restraining order from Cooper as part of his ruling would prevent the state from attempting to penalize districts for wearing masks.
Florida averaged 22,556 cases per day for the past week, which is among the highest numbers recorded during the pandemic. With the state population still only 52% vaccinated, more than 17,000 Floridians have been hospitalized for COVID-19.
Democrats and allied organizations praised Cooper’s decision, saying it was well founded and followed Florida law. It also has public safety in mind, they stressed.
“This ruling is a win for common sense, for the safety of children and for all families and school officials who have fought to protect their loved ones, students and staff,” said Agriculture Minister Nikki Fried, a Democrat who challenges DeSantis for the Governor next year.
“Governor, it is high time to get out of this ridiculous, politically motivated struggle and instead focus on working together to protect the people of Florida by promoting scientifically proven vaccines and mask guidelines,” she said.
Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said the judge’s verdict was one of the many steps needed to improve schools in Florida. Federal funding is available and not spent by Florida lawmakers, which could improve classrooms and ventilation and keep them safe for students during the pandemic, he said.
Spar said it was up to DeSantis to do more.
“Reg. DeSantis can help keep Florida schools safe today, ”said Spar. “It just seems that he doesn’t have the will.”
St. Petersburg MP Charlie Crist, another Democrat who challenges DeSantis, described the verdict as a victory over the governor’s “tyranny and ruthless leadership”.
Crist added the decision “will help communities do what medical professionals know is critical to keeping our schools and economies open while protecting vulnerable Floridians.”
In his order, DeSantis banned the county’s school authorities from requiring face-covering when students returned to class in August, saying the decision on whether to wear masks was entirely up to parents.
As reasons for the move, he named the new “Parental Rights Act”, which he had recently signed.
But Cooper said DeSantis selectively used only portions of scientific studies to justify the ban. Much of the research cited by the governor actually recommended masks in schools.
Similarly, regarding the Parents Bill of Rights, Cooper said it does not prohibit mask mandates and does not empower the governor to prohibit schools from making a requirement. In contrast, Cooper said, the law reaffirms the right of school authorities to take steps that are consistent with CDC guidelines.
“The evidence presented by the governor, in my opinion, reflects a minority, perhaps even a small minority, of medical and scientific opinion,” Cooper said.