AP – Florida school districts can legally require their students to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a judge ruled Friday, saying Gov. Ron DeSantis overstepped his authority when he issued an executive order banning such mandates.
Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper agreed with a group of parents who claimed in a lawsuit that DeSantis’ order is unconstitutional and cannot be enforced. The governor’s order gave parents the sole right to decide if their child wears a mask at school.
Cooper said DeSantis’ order “is without legal authority.”
His decision came after a four-day virtual hearing, and after 10 Florida school boards voted to defy DeSantis and impose mask requirements with no parental opt-out. Districts that have done so include Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, West Palm Beach and others. Cooper’s ruling will not go into effect until it is put into writing, which the judge asked the parents’ lawyers to complete by Monday.
Cooper said that while the governor and others have argued that a new Florida law gives parents the ultimate authority to oversee health issues for their children, it also exempts government actions that are needed to protect public health and are reasonable and limited in scope. He said a school district’s decision to require student masking to prevent the spread of the virus falls within that exemption.
DeSantis had dismissed the recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that people wear masks, questioning its legitimacy and saying it is not applicable to Florida. But Cooper said the state’s medical experts who testified during the trial that masking is ineffective in preventing COVID-19′s spread are in a distinct minority among doctors and scientists.
The highly contagious delta variant led to an acceleration in cases around Florida and record high hospitalizations just as schools prepared to reopen classrooms this month.
By mid-August, more than 21,000 new cases were being added per day, compared with about 8,500 a month earlier. Over the past week, new cases and hospitalizations have leveled off. There were 16,550 people hospitalized on Thursday, down from a record of above 17,000 last week — but still almost nine times the 1,800 who were hospitalized in June.
The 10 districts that have defied DeSantis’ order represent slightly more than half of the 2.8 million Florida public school students enrolled this year.