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Judge Orders Hearing In Florida School Mask Lawsuit

An N95 face mask outside NYU Langone Health hospital during the coronavirus pandemic.
Noam Galai
Getty Images
An N95 face mask outside NYU Langone Health hospital during the coronavirus pandemic.

Leon County Judge John Cooper will hear arguments in a motion to dismiss a lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis' mandatory school mask policy ban. The case next Thursday. If he declines to dismiss it, arguments will begin August 23rd.

Cooper says he wants to decide the case quickly. Students in Miami-Dade go back to school on the 23rd, and in other districts, schools are already back in session.

A dozen parents have sued DeSantis, saying the governor's executive order attempting to block school districts from requiring students wear masks, is unconstitutional because it infringes on a district's right to ensure the safety of all children.

DeSantis and Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran have threatened to defund school districts that violate the executive order. But recently, DeSantis amended his threat—stating the administration could dock the salaries of superintendents and school boards. That threat was further watered down to suggest the administration could withhold the equivalent amount of the salaries from district budgets.

Some districts that put mandatory mask policies in place reversed course. Others, like Leon, watered theirs down—allowing parents to opt out without a medical excuse. And one—Alachua—is keeping their policy, and medical-only opt-out, in place.

“At the end of the day the salary, to me, is not the issue. It’s about protecting children. You cannot put a price tag on a child’s life, you just can’t," said Leon Superintendent Rocky Hanna.

The governor has admitted there’s only so far he can go. His stance on defunding and docking pay was softening earlier this week, when, in response to a reporter’s question about whether he’d target funding and salaries, DeSantis deflected.

“Most of the mask policies have expired. I know you have a couple of districts who’ve done stuff recently. But at the end of the day, giving parents that option…you’re free to recommend, you can encourage whatever you want. I just don’t think you can override the rights and decisions of parents," the governor said.

Now though, DeSantis' administration is still facing at least two lawsuits from angry parents who want students to mask up and are seeking to invalidate DeSantis’ executive order. Attorney Charles Gallagher says the governor’s order violates the state constitution—which guarantees students access to safe schools.

“So many kids under 12 can’t get vaccinations. And putting them in a comingled space of mask-wearing, non-mask wearing—you have risk there as well.”   

Gallagher says DeSantis’ orders also trample over the rights of school districts to govern themselves—a concept known as home rule.

“By fiat and saying it has to be done this way and coming from the governor—that’s not what the constitution permits. And that exercise of power definitely exceeds the grant of the governor and runs afoul over the constitutional protections.”  

The governor says his policy is meant to protect parents’ rights to choose what’s best for their children. A second lawsuit in federal court alleges DeSantis’ mandatory mask ban jeopardizes the rights of disabled kids who CAN’T wear masks—but need to be protected.

The State Board of Education is slated to hold a meeting next week to discuss what to do with districts that continue to defy the governor.

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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