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Leon Schools Lawyers Up To Defend Its Mask Mandate

Leon County students can go to school mask-free, although Supt. Rocky Hanna says schools may pivot in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.
Andy Dean Photography/Andy Dean
Leon County students can go to school mask-free, although Supt. Rocky Hanna says schools may pivot in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.

The Leon County School district is lawyering up to defend its school mask mandate. The district has hired the same firm that is also representing Miami Dade Schools in the ongoing fight over requiring students to wear face coverings.

The district received a letter last week from the Department of Education notifying its superintendent and school board that its mask mandate is under investigation. It had until Wednesday to respond. In a written response to Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, Superintendent Rocky Hanna defended the district’s mask policies, noting there is nothing in a Department of Health Rule governing mask mandates that prohibits school districts from requiring parents have a medical excuse for opting their children out of wearing face coverings in school.

“The DOH Rule does not dictate the procedures that school districts must follow for the opt-out or the criteria that are to be applied. Each individual school district has to determine the appropriate procedures and criteria for its district based upon local conditions, which is what we have done,” Hanna wrote to Corcoran.

The department is already withholding some funds from Broward and Alachua which are only allowing students to opt out of wearing face coverings if they have a doctor’s note. Hanna said Thursday in a special meeting of the Leon School Board that the district has seen more than 600 students testing positive for COVID.

“All of last year we were at 815 cases. So, we’re now at 75% after 15 days of the entire school year last year with the number of positive cases,” he said.

The district has hired the firm Weiss Serota which is also helping Miami-Dade Schools defend its mask policies. Attorney Jaime Cole says Leon has a stronger case than Broward and Alachua in that the district’s requirement that students wear face coverings is more narrowly tailored.

“You only did it through PreK-8, you didn’t do it for the high schools," Cole said, "so you’ve been narrowly tailored. So part of the strategy we had when we drafted the response to the letter is to explain that to the state board of education to try to deter them from continuing enforcement action."

Leon started the school year with a voluntary mask policy but after case numbers climbed and a student died, the district adopted a mandatory one that requires a medical excuse to opt out.

At stake in the legal battle is whether school boards can live up to their constitutional mandate which gives them control over how to operate their schools.

“I’ve been fighting for home rule for cities and governments. And if the state or the governor and other state agencies are able to force you to do whatever they say and penalize you personally for doing it or kick you out f office for the way you vote—it goes to the heart of democracy and the separation of powers and those concepts,” Cole said.

More than a dozen Florida school districts are now openly defying Gov. Ron DeSantis’ effort to ban mandatory mask wearing in public schools. A Leon County Circuit Judge ruled last week against the state in a lawsuit brought by parents who claim barring districts from mask mandates puts their children in danger of contracting a serious illness. The ruling was officially filed Thursday, with an injunction that seeks to block the state from enforcing punishments against school districts. But that order is certain to be appealed, and Cole notes a stay on the injunction is likely to be granted—until the issue is fully resolved.

The DeSantis administration has said such policies violate the Parent Bill of Rights which says parents have the authority to make healthcare decisions for their children. Yet, the law also says districts can override that if they have a narrow and compelling reason to do so. Several other lawsuits are making their way through the courts.

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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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