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Hillsborough schools’ mask rule is allowed by law, judge says

No rights were violated, said Circuit Judge Martha Cook, who dismissed a lawsuit filed by parents.
Students arrive at Burnett Middle School in Seffner on Aug. 31, when Hillsborough County reopened campuses after starting the school year online for the first week. A lawsuit challenging the district's mask-wearing rule has been dismissed.
Students arrive at Burnett Middle School in Seffner on Aug. 31, when Hillsborough County reopened campuses after starting the school year online for the first week. A lawsuit challenging the district's mask-wearing rule has been dismissed. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 16, 2020
Updated Dec. 16, 2020

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County school system is not unreasonable in requiring staff and students to cover their faces as protection against the coronavirus, a judge has ruled.

Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge Martha J. Cook on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit filed in August by a group of school parents represented by attorney and civil libertarian Patrick Leduc.

His lawsuit said the face covering rule, part of the school district’s August reopening plan, forced families to make an unfair and potentially discriminatory choice: They could use the face masks. which Leduc contends are ineffective and can be harmful for children. Or they could have their children learn remotely — which, he argues, is an inferior form of education.

In her ruling, Cook wrote that the school system was well within its rights, as it was acting in the public’s best interest.

“In the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic, like other school boards, municipalities, and governing bodies in Florida and this country, Defendants were responsible for instituting a plan to safely and effectively reopen public schools,” she wrote. “The reopening plan does not infringe upon any constitutionally-protected, fundamental right, does not target a suspect class, and applies to students and staff equally.”

Therefore, the ruling said, the “School Board had a rational basis for implementing the face covering requirement” and its “face mask requirement bears a reasonable relationship to a valid governmental objective.”

Leduc, noting Wednesday that a number of similar cases are pending in courts around the state and nation, said he was disappointed but not surprised.

He took issue with a passage in which Cook wrote that education is not a fundamental right, but a “fundamental value.” Leduc said education is indeed a right according to the concept of “ordered liberty,” which means it is necessary to maintain an orderly society.

“You don’t have a constitutional right to shop at Walmart,” he said. “But in my opinion, a child does have a constitutional right to learn how to read.”

Leduc said that if the School Board seriously thought masks were necessary, they would not allow children to remove them during lunch.

In his lawsuit, he also argued that the rule forces school employees to administer a medical procedure.

In her ruling, Cook wrote, “a mask is no more a ‘medical procedure’ than putting a Band-Aid on an open wound.”