Some Florida parents are breathing a sigh of relief at the news that a judge has overturned Governor Ron DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates in schools. Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper sided with parents who sued the Republican governor and the state’s education department, saying the ban violates a part of the Florida constitution requiring districts to make schools safe and secure.
According to Cooper’s ruling, which was issued on Friday in a Zoom hearing, any order from the governor or a state agency that “bans under all circumstances a face mask mandate for school children without a parental opt-out does not meet constitutional muster.”
DeSantis and his attorneys attempted to justify his anti-mask efforts by claiming the order was protected by Florida’s Parents’ Bill of Rights, a controversial piece of legislature put into law this year that grants parents rights regarding their children’s education, upbringing, and health care. This includes the ability to opt children out of comprehensive sex and health education as well as immunizations. But Cooper said the law did not give the governor the authority to ban mask mandates in schools.
“Such action exceeds the authority given to the defendants under the Parents Bill of Rights law passed by the Florida legislature,” he said, adding that the Parents Bill of Rights includes an exemption for limited government actions designed to protect public health.
Striking down Gov. Ron DeSantis' ban on school mask mandates, Judge John Cooper makes a drunk driving analogy to show how rights can be limited if they put other people at risk. pic.twitter.com/BblhkpJTpc
— The Recount (@therecount) August 27, 2021
Cooper added that masks are necessary for a safe school environment, citing the “higher risk of infection to children” of the Delta variant, which is now the predominant strain of the virus, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation for universal masking in all K-12 schools.
“We had a different, less infectious, less dangerous form of virus last year than we have this year,” the judge said. “As the facts change on the ground, the need or failure to need for various measures will also change.”
Even before Cooper’s decision, many Florida school districts were planning to start the school year with mask mandates in place. At least 10 school districts imposed such mandates despite DeSantis’ order and his administration’s threats of “consequences,” such as stripping funding for districts that don’t comply.
Democrats in the state applauded Judge Cooper’s decision, which will likely go into effect next week when he issues a written ruling. “The court did not have to go through legal contortion in order to come to a conclusion supported by precedent, science and common sense,” said Rep. Michael Grieco (D-Miami Beach). “The judge followed the law, something I wish everyone else in government would do, especially when we are talking about the health of children and educators.”
A spokesperson for DeSantis, Taryn Fenske, issued a statement on behalf of the governor following the ruling. “This ruling was made with incoherent justifications, not based in science and facts — frankly not even remotely focused on the merits of the case presented,” Fenske said. “We are used to the Leon County Circuit Court not following the law and getting reversed on appeal, which is exactly what happened last year in the school reopening case. We will continue to defend the law and parent’s [sic] rights in Florida, and will immediately appeal the ruling to the First District Court of Appeals, where we are confident we will prevail on the merits of the case.”
Florida’s Department of Education also said in a statement that they intend to appeal the decision. “We are immensely disappointed that the ruling issued today by the Second Judicial Circuit discards the rule of law,” said spokesperson Jared M. Ochs. “This decision conflicts with basic and established rights of parents to make private health care and education decisions for children.”
But in his ruling, the judge countered the argument that the decision not to mask is a private health care choice, comparing not masking to drunk driving. “It’s our right to drink alcoholic beverages if we’re over 21, but we cannot get in our car and start driving around while we’ve had alcoholic beverages that impair our ability to drive,” Cooper said. “And the reason is, the driver exercising his or her right to drink is now putting at risk other people.”
Masks are even more necessary in Florida now as Covid continues to ravage the state. According to calculations of CDC data by the Miami Herald, the state surpassed its record for single-day case totals on Thursday, adding 26,385 new cases. The state also leads the country in the number of people hospitalized with Covid, according to data from Health and Human Services.