Florida judge allows school districts to enforce strict mask mandates. DeSantis appeal expected

“This case has generated a lot of heat and a lot of light, but the bottom line is this case is about enforcing the law the Legislature passed, and that’s why I think setting aside this stay is appropriate,” Judge John Cooper said.
Circuit Court Judge John Cooper in Leon County.
Circuit Court Judge John Cooper in Leon County.
Published Sept. 8, 2021|Updated Sept. 8, 2021

A Florida Circuit Judge on Wednesday blocked Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration from enforcing a ban on strict mask mandates in schools after vacating a stay on a ruling tied to a parent-led lawsuit.

That means 13 school districts with mask requirements that allow only medical opt-outs can keep enforcing their mandates. Their ability to do so might be short lived, however, as the state intends to ask the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee to reinstate the stay. There had been no announcement from the 1st DCA as of 6 p.m. Wednesday.

Judge John Cooper said his rationale for lifting the stay came down to whether DeSantis and his administration had followed the Parents’ Bill of Rights, a newly enacted state law that the state invoked when issuing a blanket ban on mask mandates with no parent opt-out.

“This case has generated a lot of heat and a lot of light, but the bottom line is this case is about enforcing the law the Legislature passed, and that’s why I think setting aside this stay is appropriate,” Cooper said.

The underlying court decision on Wednesday is part of an ongoing, broad parent-led lawsuit that contends DeSantis and his administration overstepped their legal authority when issuing a blanket ban on mask mandates amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.

After a four-day trial last month, Cooper concluded that DeSantis and his administration acted “without legal authority” when enforcing the state’s ban on mask mandates because the state selectively enforced the Parents’ Bill of Rights. But his order was automatically put on hold after the state appealed it on Thursday.

Judge tells DeSantis to follow the entire law

In his original ruling, Cooper said that DeSantis, the Department of Education and the State Board of Education needed to enforce the law in full, and could not punish districts that demonstrate their mask policy “is reasonable” and achieves “a compelling state interest.”

“This isn’t whether I agree with masking or not. The issue is I have decided that the governor has to comply with the laws passed by the Florida Legislature. I say everybody has to do that. If the 1st District agrees with me, they’ll tell me that.” Cooper said during the court hearing on Wednesday. “All I said in the injunction is, you can’t take an action which violates the Florida Parents’ Bill of Rights.”

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has made the same argument when enforcing the state’s ban on local mask mandates. He said “elected officials cannot pick and choose what laws they want to follow,” when the state began to withhold funds equivalent to monthly salaries of school board members in Broward and Alachua counties.

“Judge Cooper’s ruling is certainly good news. It confirms that our School Board members should not be penalized for approving our mask policy — a policy that follows both the law and medical science,” Alachua County Superintendent Carlee Simon said. “We’ll continue to watch this case closely while pursuing legal action with our colleagues from the Broward and Orange County school systems. We are committed to protecting the district’s right to meet the needs of students and staff without the threat of sanctions.”

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Eleven other school districts in Florida — including Miami-Dade, Hillsborough and Palm Beach counties — have imposed mask mandates like the ones Broward and Alachua counties have enacted. All districts have stayed the course, and the state has notified them that they are non-compliant and could face financial penalties if they do not reverse course.

Charles Gallagher, the lead attorney for parents in the mask mandate case, acknowledged the case still has “a ways to go” as it moves through the appeals process. But was “heartened” to see the stay lifted on Wednesday.

“We think it was the correct call to make,” Gallagher said.

DeSantis ‘confident’ stay will be reinstated

At a press conference in Palm Coast on Wednesday, DeSantis told reporters he did not think Cooper would “lift the stay.” But if he did, he said he is “confident” that it would be reinstated by the 1st DCA.

Taryn Fenske, a spokeswoman for the governor, later issued a statement that said: “No surprise here that Judge Cooper concluded that he is unlikely to be overruled on appeal. We (unsurprisingly) disagree.”

Cooper said he has to consider the likelihood of success on the appeal before lifting the stay on his ruling. He said he did not think that test had been met because his ruling was narrowly tailored to telling the state it could not violate the Parents’ Bill of Rights, and did not address local control or the safety of schools.

That law says the state is not allowed to “infringe on the fundamental rights of a parent” to direct the upbringing, education, healthcare, and mental health of a child “without demonstrating that such action is reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest.”

Cooper said the “greater weight of the evidence” presented in the case did not support the claim that mandatory face masks with a medical opt-out would “create a meaningful harm to those wearing them.”

But he reiterated that the basis for his ruling was narrowly tailored to whether policies imposed in the state were “reasonable and rational” based on state law, not school safety.

“Just like I am not required to rule against the governor because the great weight of medical science opposes his policies. I am required to rule for him because there is some valid rational basis to support the policy,” Cooper said, the same goes for local mask mandates.

“They don’t have to pick the best policy. They just have to have a policy that meets those standards of the Bill of Rights,” Cooper said.