TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — In a critical decision impacting millions of students throughout the state, a Florida judge on Friday ruled that public school districts can legally impose universal mask mandates — without the ability for children to opt-out — in order to slow the spread of COVID-19.
In issuing his ruling, Judge John Cooper of the 2nd Judicial Circuit Court of Florida delivered a crushing blow to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who in late July filed an emergency order that was designed to give parents the final say over whether their children should be masked in school.
Cooper on Friday said the governor has no legal authority to issue a blanket ban on school mask mandates.
A group of parents opposed to the DeSantis' order filed a lawsuit earlier this month against the governor, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the Florida Department of Education, and the Florida Board of Education, saying the directive puts the health and safety of children at risk.
The lawsuit claims DeSantis overstepped his Constitutional authority by taking away the ability for school districts to make health-related decisions to provide a "safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools."
DeSantis argued that facial covering decisions fall under the guidelines of the newly passed Parents' Bill of Rights, which gives parents and guardians general control over a child's education, upbringing, and health care.
However, Cooper on Friday said the Parents' Bill of Rights says nothing of banning school mask mandates, and DeSantis' order "is without legal authority."
"The defendants do not have authority under this law to a blanket, mandatory ban against a face mask policy that does not provide a parental opt out," Cooper said. "They simply do not have that authority."
At least 10 public school districts in Florida had already instituted their own facial covering requirements for children without the ability to opt-out in defiance of DeSantis' order. The only exceptions are for students with certain medical conditions.
Those sweeping mandates affect roughly 2.9 million students throughout the state.
Cooper said that based on surging COVID-19 cases because of the highly contagious delta variant, a "higher risk of infection to children," and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending "universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status," it is reasonable for school districts to enact facial covering requirements without opt-out provisions.
"We had a different, less infectious, less dangerous form of virus last year than we have this year," Cooper said. "As the facts change on the ground, the need or failure to need for various measures will also change."
While Cooper argued that "we all have personal rights," he feels the right for students to not wear a mask puts the health of other children at risk because of the dangers of the pandemic.
"Parents' rights are very important," Cooper said. "But they're not without some reasonable limitation depending upon safety."
DeSantis has repeatedly threatened punishments for school officials who violate his emergency order.
However, the Florida Department of Education thus far has only begun to penalize school districts in Broward and Alachua counties by withholding a portion of the salaries of certain school board members on a monthly basis.
Cooper on Thursday said there was no COVID-19 state of emergency in effect in late July when DeSantis issued his order.
"A one-size-fits-all policy for student health and safety as dictated by Tallahassee, in other words by the state, runs contrary to [a section] of the Florida Constitution," DeSantis said.
DeSantis said Thursday if Cooper rules against the state, it will appeal his decision.
This story was originally published by Matt Papaycik on Scripps station WPTV in West Palm Beach, Florida.