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Closing Arguments Set In School Mask Lawsuit With A Ruling Expected Friday

A school zone in Tallahassee
Valerie Crowder
A school zone in Tallahassee

A ruling is expected Friday in a lawsuit over Gov. Ron DeSantis’ effort to ban school districts from requiring students wear face masks. Closing arguments are slated for Thursday.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs and the state have sparred all week in a Leon County courtroom. The plaintiffs—a group of parents—have argued that by allowing face masking to be voluntary, the health of their children is at risk. Many of those children are too young to be vaccinated.

Palm Beach county parent Lesley Abravanel said she was shocked when she saw the classroom her kids would be in during a recent open house at the school. Desks were clustered together in groups of four and there was no way for kids to stay distanced.

 “We’re throwing our children into pretty much a petri dish right now. If everyone isn’t required to wear a mask, how are we going to protect children and staff from catching this Delta variant? We are not. I’m terrified, and so is every other parent I’ve spoken with,” Abravanel said during her testimony earlier this week.

University of South Florida public health professor Thomas Unnash testified that the Delta variant is so contagious that if it were compound interest, investors would see a great return, "but in this case, it’s exponential growth of a pretty terrifying infection.”

The state has presented its own witnesses, including two Leon County parents who’ve been challenging the district on its mandatory school mask policy.

Ashley Benton testified that her fifth-grade daughter, who has a sensory processing order that makes mask wearing difficult and painful—is suffering from the district’s policy. Benton, who has been present at several recent local school board meetings, says she consulted with her daughter’s pediatrician—but that the doctor refused to sign off on the medical opt-out form the district is requiring.

“At this point, if I can’t get a medical opt out, I think I will have to pull her out of school,” Benton told the court. Leon school officials have offered to work with Benton on her situation.

The state’s legal defense also included the state’s K-12 Chancellor Jacob Oliva who noted some students with disabilities, and those learning English, often struggle when the faces of their teachers are obscured. And a frequent advisor to Gov. DeSantis, Stanford University professor of medicine, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, noted other countries and public health entities have issued conflicting guidance on the effectiveness of requiring school children to wear face coverings.

“The World Health Organization does not recommend recommending kids 2-5…Public Health England, and the U.K. as a whole, has decided not to have masking at all in schools. So these bodies are looking at the same evidence base and coming to these conclusions in part because it’s a policy decision that weighs costs and benefits,” Bhattacharya said.

He also noted that while the Delta variant is more contagious, he doesn’t believe there’s enough evidence to prove that it is more lethal to children.

The lawsuit was brought by parents seeking to overturn the Governor’s executive order. DeSantis believes mask wearing by children in schools should be left to parents to decide—and he says mandatory mask policies amount to government making healthcare decisions—which violates the new Parents Bill of Rights, law.

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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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