A Florida court on Friday rejected an effort by Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials to prevent mask mandates in schools during the state’s worst Covid-19 outbreak yet.
Judge John C. Cooper of the state’s Second Judicial Circuit said that Florida’s school districts may impose strict mask mandates on students to curb the spread of the coronavirus, handing a defeat to Governor DeSantis, whose administration has vehemently insisted on leaving masking decisions to children’s parents.
In a lengthy ruling from the bench, Judge Cooper sided with parents of students in various school districts who had argued that Florida’s Constitution requires keeping schoolchildren safe and secure, and masks would help accomplish that in a pandemic. Florida had previously indicated that it would appeal any adverse ruling to a more conservative appellate court.
Lawyers for Mr. DeSantis, a Republican, and the Florida Department of Education had countered that a “parents’ bill of rights” enacted by state lawmakers earlier this year gave parents the right to decide if their child should wear a mask. Judge Cooper disagreed, saying the new law “doesn’t ban mask mandates” and in fact gives school districts the discretion to impose them.
“I’m a parent — parents’ rights are very important,” Judge Cooper said. “But they’re not without some reasonable limitation, depending upon safety, reasonableness and a compelling state need.”
In a statement, the Department of Education said it would appeal.
“We are immensely disappointed that the ruling issued today by the Second Judicial Circuit discards the rule of law,” said Jared M. Ochs, a spokesman. “This decision conflicts with basic and established rights of parents to make private health care and education decisions for children.”
The ruling, delivered over nearly two hours on Friday, came after a high-profile trial was held via Zoom over the course of four days this week. At one point, more than 2,000 people watched Judge Cooper deliver his ruling in a livestream on YouTube.
Judge Cooper granted an injunction against the Department of Education — but not the governor — blocking it from punishing local school boards. Florida had threatened to withhold funding from two school districts, Alachua and Broward, which were the first to impose strict mask mandates, in an amount equal to school board members’ monthly salaries.
Other Republican governors who have banned school mask mandates, including Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas and Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, are also facing legal challenges.
Florida is experiencing its worst moment of the pandemic after a brutal summer surge fueled by the Delta variant that has left more people testing positive for, hospitalized with and dying from the virus than ever before. More children in the state are hospitalized with Covid-19 than at any other point. This week in Orange County, where Orlando is, children between the ages of 5 and 14 made up about 20 percent of new virus cases.
Classes have started over the past few weeks, prompting 10 of the state’s 67 countywide school districts, covering about half of the state’s 2.8 million students, to defy the state and require masks with limited medical exemptions. Other districts made masks voluntary or allowed parents to opt out for any reason.
Florida has allowed parents to apply for private school vouchers if they consider mask mandates to be “harassment” of their children.