What’s next in Florida’s standoff over masks in schools?

Here’s a recap of where the state stands on requiring masks in schools.
Jennifer Showalter, of Wellington, protests against masks during a rally outside the Palm Beach County School District office on May 19, 2021.
Jennifer Showalter, of Wellington, protests against masks during a rally outside the Palm Beach County School District office on May 19, 2021. [ CARLINE JEAN | South Florida ]
Published Sept. 3, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Department of Education late Thursday appealed a court ruling that invalidated the state’s ban on face mask mandates for students in public schools, effectively leaving the prohibition in place as the challenge moves through the court process.

The motion, filed in the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee by attorney Michael Abel at 5:10 p.m., triggered an immediate stay of the ruling finalized by Leon County Circuit Court Judge John C. Cooper just over an hour earlier.

In response, attorneys for the five parents who sued the state immediately asked the court to vacate the automatic stay, arguing that because of the prevalence of the delta variant of the coronavirus in Florida, “there is the very real prospect of irreparable harm to the individual plaintiffs.”

They said the state should not be allowed “to enforce an unconstitutionally enacted executive order against a local school district which chooses safety — issuing mask mandates without parental opt-out.”

A hearing on whether to lift the automatic stay is set for Wednesday before Cooper. It will be up to the court to decide, but given the DeSantis administration’s adherence to its position that parents have a right to allow their children to go to school without masks regardless of the community’s COVID-19 infection rate, the state is expected to challenge the plaintiff’s motion.

There are 13 school districts in Florida that have imposed mask mandates, including Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Hillsborough, Duval and Orange counties. Seminole and Lake county school boards met Thursday and both voted to leave their policies in place that allow all parents to choose to have their child opt-out of the requirement for facial coverings.

The Department of Education on Monday began punishing school officials for adopting face mask mandates with no parental opt-outs other than medical, and announced it was withholding the equivalent of the school board member salaries in the Broward and Alachua county school districts for doing so. No financial penalties have yet been imposed on school districts who enacted similar mask mandates after Broward and Alachua led the way.

Despite the state’s threats, the school districts stand by their mask mandates. They argue that they are following the state law by giving parents who can show a medical need the opportunity to have their child excluded from their universal mask mandate policy. They say that the Florida Constitution also requires them to protect the health of students, which includes containing the spread of a deadly virus.

In their 10-page motion, attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that “if the automatic stay remains in place, plaintiffs will continue to face the increased risk of the delta variant infection, local school boards will continue to face penalties from defendants from their enforcement of the executive order, and local school boards will be faced with the choice of being subject to penalties issued by defendants or protecting plaintiffs, students, and school staff by having the ability to issue mandatory mask mandates without parental opt-out.”

In his order, Cooper rejected claims by the plaintiffs that the state violated local school district’s home rule powers when DeSantis ordered the Florida Department of Health to issue the rule banning mask mandates in public schools, but sided with the parents on several other key points. He ruled that DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran exceeded their authority, and he concluded the executive order “undermines school safety and makes arbitrary and capricious demands on public schools in violation of the Florida Constitution.”

Cooper said that the governor, the Department of Education and State Board of Education improperly applied the Parents Bill of Rights by selectively enforcing only a portion of the new law. And he concluded that DeSantis and Corcoran have no authority to punish school districts that have demonstrated their mask policy “is reasonable” and achieves “a compelling state interest.”

Neither DeSantis, nor Corcoran, commented on Cooper’s ruling.