A Florida judge has ruled that school districts in the state can require students to wear masks. At least 10 school districts — including some in many of the largest cities — had been defying state rules set by Gov. Ron DeSantis banning mask mandates.
Judge John Cooper ruled on a lawsuit brought by parents who say DeSantis overstepped his authority when his administration said school districts couldn't order students to wear masks. DeSantis had warned that "there will be consequences" for districts that defied the ban.
Ruling from the bench at the conclusion of a five-day trial, Cooper said that face mask mandates that follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are "reasonable and consistent with the best scientific and medical opinion in this country." He found that the DeSantis administration violated the law when it banned school districts from requiring masks.
Following an order from the governor, Florida's Health and Education departments issued rules barring school districts from requiring students to wear face masks without allowing their parents to opt out. DeSantis said face mask mandates violate a Florida law that says parents have a right to make educational and health care decisions for their children.
Cooper said that in issuing the executive order and rules banning face mask mandates, DeSantis ignored a provision of the law that said school districts are allowed to take actions that are "reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest."
The judge said he would issue an injunction preventing the DeSantis administration from taking any action against school districts with face mask mandates. The state Board of Education has said it plans to withhold funds from the first two school districts that adopted face mask mandates in Alachua and Broward counties.
In court this week, lawyers for the parents say DeSantis' order violates a constitutional requirement that districts operate schools that are safe and secure. The state maintains parents have the ultimate authority to decide what's best for their kids. The judge's ruling allows school districts to require masks.
Noting that the coronavirus — and particularly the delta variant — is highly contagious and sometimes fatal to children, Cooper urged people to take a step back, "We will not solve any issue if we can't sit down and work together and take positions recognizing what's going on is not some recent imposition or some attack on the country."
The coronavirus and the delta variant have ripped across Florida in recent months (an elementary school in Vero Beach shut down on Friday until after Labor Day). More people have been infected and hospitalized of COVID-19 than at any point during the pandemic. The number of deaths, about 242 a day, is also near a record level.