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Judge Lifts Stay, Rules Florida Schools Can Mandate Masks — For Now

Winston Wallace, 9, raises his hand in class at iPrep Academy on the first day of school in Miami in August 2021.
Lynne Sladky
Winston Wallace, 9, raises his hand in class at iPrep Academy on the first day of school in Miami in August 2021.

It's not a final decision on whether facial coverings can be required in school. Legal challenges are continuing in state and federal proceedings.

Florida school district mask mandates can remain in place while an appeals court considers the issue, a state judge in Leon County ruled during a Zoom hearing Wednesday morning.

Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper’s decision to lift an automatic stay of his decision means Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration can’t penalize school districts for requiring facial coverings in schools while the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee takes up the case.

“We have children who can't be protected by a vaccination,” Cooper said, referring to children under 12 who are not yet eligible to be immunized against COVID-19.

“And the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], the American Pediatrics Association and every single witness who testified who is a practicing medical doctor in this case said that children are at risk, and [masks] provide at least some protection,” Cooper said.

Last week, Cooper sided with a group of parents challenging the DeSantis administration in ruling that state officials overstepped their authority in penalizing school districts for mandating masks.

A state law passed this year called the Parents’ Bill of Right, gives parents authority over educational and health care decisions for their children. The administration has argued school districts’ mask mandates with no parental exemption violate the law.

Cooper disagreed, arguing that the law allows school boards to make policies dealing with children’s education and health, as long as they are reasonable, narrowly tailored and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest.

The state appealed the decision, which initiated an automatic stay. The parents appealed to Cooper, who lifted the stay on Wednesday.

Despite Cooper’s decision, the state moved forward with plans to dock the pay of superintendents and school board members who enforced mask mandates.

Wednesday morning’s hearing focused on what should happen as the appeals court considers the legal question. An attorney for the plaintiffs argued successfully that the threat of COVID-19, particularly the highly contagious delta variant, was a good enough reason to lift the automatic stay on enforcing the lower court’s ruling.

Cooper said actions from governmental bodies, like DeSantis’ executive order that blocks mask mandates, typically should be upheld while working through court challenges.

“But we're not in normal times,” he said. “We're in a pandemic.”

Meanwhile, other legal battles are continuing.

A federal court in Miami on Wednesday began hearing a case in which parents argue the state ban on mask mandates violates federal laws that protect educational access for children with disabilities.

During the hearing in the U.S. Southern District of Florida, attorneys for parents argued it’s too dangerous for kids with disabilities, serious medical conditions or compromised immune systems to go to school unless everyone wears masks.

Separately, school districts are challenging a rule from the state Department of Health that states parents must have the chance to “opt out” their children from mask wearing.

Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Jessica Bakeman reports on K-12 and higher education for WLRN, south Florida's NPR affiliate. While new to Miami and public radio, Jessica is a seasoned journalist who has covered education policymaking and politics in three state capitals: Jackson, Miss.; Albany, N.Y.; and, most recently, Tallahassee.
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