Judge: Florida schools can mandate masks, DeSantis overstepped

Decision in Leon County likely to be appealed

Florida's governor overstepped his authority and local school boards are within their rights to impose face mask requirements amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a Leon County circuit judge ruled Friday.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida school districts wishing to enforce face mask mandates scored a win in court Friday, with a Tallahassee judge ruling in favor of parents who sued to overturn Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order banning those measures.

Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper said DeSantis overstepped his authority and that the governor’s order “is without legal authority.”

Cooper added that the state’s Parents Bill of Rights, which took effect in July, does not prevent schools from requiring masks, and that mandates that follow CDC guidance are “at this time, reasonable.”

The governor’s office blasted the decision as being “made with incoherent justifications” and said it will be appealed.

Craig Whisenhunt, an attorney for the parents who sued, argued that the governor’s order violates the authority of school districts to decide health issues and said it endangers children by not letting districts follow COVID-19 guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

DeSantis attorney Michael Abel argued the governor has the authority to side with parents who believe it is their right to decide what is best for their children.

Cooper said in his decision that personal rights — such as the right to not want your child to wear a face mask — become limited when they put other people at risk.

He gave the example of adults having the right to drink alcohol, but not to get in a car and drive drunk. “That driver executing his or her rights to drink is now putting at risk other people,” Cooper said.

In explaining his decision, Cooper cited the increased transmissibility of the now-dominant delta variant of COVID-19 in Florida, which puts children at higher risk.

“We had a less dangerous form of virus last year than we do this year,” he said.

The judge added that he believes school districts should have the power to make decisions locally, as Florida is a large state and what may be an appropriate decision in a rural county may not apply the same in a larger urban county with different circumstances. On that point, he conceded that past case law is “all over the place.”

Several public school districts, including those in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, defied the governor’s order and required face masks at the start of this school year — without a parental opt-out except for medical reasons.

“Despite all of the science, the governor has sought to insert himself into matters of local health concern and impede the ability of school boards to do what they are constitutionally mandated to do, which is to operate and control their schools,” Whisenhunt said during the court hearing.

On the same day as Cooper’s ruling, Miami-Dade County Public Schools received a letter Friday from Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran admonishing their mask mandate, just as Broward County had previously received.

“The decision today in Tallahassee is a critical one,” Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said. “In essence, Judge Cooper affirmed the legality of the protocols adopted by our school system just last week.”

Broward County Public Schools Interim Superintendent Vickie Cartwright also praised the ruling. She said six students Thursday refused to wear a mask among the district’s population of about 260,000. On Friday, four students objected, she said.

“What that tells us is that our students and our families support our school board’s decision and they support wholeheartedly and had a deep understanding of what the conditions are currently in Broward County,” Cartwright said.

She added that the district’s 202 cases of COVID-19 among students and 155 among teachers as of Thursday would have likely been higher had they allowed masks to be optional.

“Our numbers are dramatically low and demonstrate that wearing the face coverings is an important mitigation tool,” Cartwright said.

The state threatened to withhold school board members’ salaries for enacting policies that violate DeSantis’ order. President Joe Biden stepped in and said federal money would be used to cover any costs if that is the case.

The position of DeSantis and the state education board is that parents should have the right to decide if their children wear masks at school.

“In terms of health, there’s parents whose kids have not done well wearing the masks all day,” DeSantis said Thursday at a news conference. “Obviously kids with special needs have not done well. Kids with autism. And kids who just don’t learn as well, particularly the little kids, when they’re not able to see some of the facial cues.”

Cooper, however, noted that many of the parents who served as witnesses speaking against mask mandates in the virtual court proceedings highlighted medical issues of their children that should make them eligible to opt out of the requirements in the counties that have them.

Cooper said before delivering his decision that he had been up until 2 a.m. working on it.

He spent more than two hours detailing the intricacies of his ruling.

DeSantis’ press secretary Christina Pushaw released the following statement in response:

“It’s not surprising that Judge Cooper would rule against parent’s [sic] rights and their ability to make the best educational and medical decisions for their family, but instead rule in favor of elected politicians. 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. We are used to the Leon County Circuit Court not following the law and getting reversed on appeal, which is exactly what happened last year in the school reopening case. We will continue to defend the law and parent’s [sic] rights in Florida, and will immediately appeal the ruling to the First District Court of Appeals, where we are confident we will prevail on the merits of the case.”


About the Authors:

In January 2017, Hatzel Vela became the first local television journalist in the country to move to Cuba and cover the island from the inside. During his time living and working in Cuba, he covered some of the most significant stories in a post-Fidel Castro Cuba.