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The Florida Roundup

Judge Strikes Down Ban On Florida School Mask Mandates — "A Sound Victory," Says Parents' Lawyer

Emma Orell
Lynne Sladky/AP
/
AP
Emma Orell raises her hand in fourth grade class at iPrep Academy on the first day of school, Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, in Miami. Schools in Miami-Dade County opened Monday with a strict mask mandate to guard against coronavirus infections. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

A circuit court judge ruled against Gov. Ron DeSantis and his order prohibiting public schools from instituting mask requirements. An attorney representing parents who sued called it a "bulletproof" ruling.

Gov. Ron DeSantis exceeded his authority when he prohibited local public schools from requiring students to wear masks in class, a Leon County circuit court judge ruled Friday.

"It's a sound victory for students across Florida," said Charles Gallagher, one of the lawyers representing a group of parents who sued the governor over his executive order.

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The ruling barred the state from enforcing the the governor's directive. Ten school districts, including many of the largest in the state, have approved policies this month requiring students to wear masks in their classrooms.

Many of the policies allow an exemption only with a doctor's note. The school boards okayed the policies despite threats from Florida Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran that they would lose funding equal to the pay of school board members and superintendents.

"We think it is a full victory," Gallagher said.

The judge ruled the state's new Parents Bill of Rights Law does not prevent school mask mandates. He said local school boards have the power to institute their own rules and the state has the power to challenge those local rules, but the local officials must be granted due process.

"This allows all school boards in the state of Florida to act in their own judgment without fear of this financial repercussions, at least these financial funds," Gallagher said.

About half of Florida's public school children attend school in districts that have a mask mandate in place.

Parents opposed to having their children be mandated to wear a face covering can apply for a state-funded school voucher program to send them to a private school. The Department of Education recently expanded eligibility for the school vouchers to include "COVID harassment." Previously, the program focused on allowing students who are victims of bullying to apply for the education voucher money.

On Thursday, Gov. DeSantis said he would "obviously" appeal any ruling where the state did not win its case. That appeal may concentrate on the Parents Bill of Rights law which states parents have the "right to make health care decisions for his or her minor child."

In his ruling, Judge John Cooper said, "The law does not require that the school board get permission for the policy in advance, it requires only that if a policy is challenged, it has a burden to prove its validity under the guidelines of the statute."

"The court took great pains to create an order that will be bulletproof to any appeal made," Gallagher said.

Doctors' Pleas

The ruling allowing school mask mandates comes as the COVID-19 virus is raging through Florida. Hundreds of thousands of people are testing positive each week. Tens of thousands are hospitalized across the state, including children.

COVID is a long illness and we are definitely still seeing a lot of patients hospitalized for weeks, months.
Dr. Jen Cowart, Jacksonville ER physician

Dr. Sam Atallah, a surgeon with AdventHealth in Orlando, said his medical ward and ICU are filled entirely with patients suffering from COVID-19 — "99 percent of who are unvaccinated."

"COVID is a long illness and we are definitely still seeing a lot of patients hospitalized for weeks, months," said Dr. Jen Cowart, an ER physician in Jacksonville. "The ones who go to ICU do not come out quickly when they do recover."

Dozens of Florida hospitals ran the risk of running out of oxygen in a survey taken in the middle of the week by the Florida Hospital Association. The trade group said since July, more than two dozen hospitals have seen their oxygen supplies dwindle to less than 12 hours left before receiving new supplies.

Orlando asked residents to conserve water and Hillsborough County changed its water treatment process in the effort to use less liquid oxygen, a common ingredient in water purification.

"This should make everybody stand back and say, 'Man, this pandemic is very, very serious,'" said Atallah. "It has surged to a new level and we have to do something to curtail this pandemic. And that starts with vaccinations."

Through Aug. 20, 61% of adults — 18 and older — in Florida were fully vaccinated. The rate of which people were getting shots had fallen from the previous week, according to state data.

In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.