TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis won a temporary legal victory on Friday after an appeals court reinstated the state’s ban on school mask mandates and raised “serious doubts” about parents winning a lawsuit against his administration.
The decision once again allows the Florida Department of Education to penalize 13 school districts that require students to wear masks without allowing parents to opt-out of face coverings.
The 1st District Court of Appeal ruling also foreshadowed that the Republican governor appears well positioned to win against the parents who sued the state for blocking local mask mandates. The legal challenge is one of several over requiring masks for students. Those other cases are currently winding through the legal process.
“These doubts significantly militate against the likelihood of the (parents’) ultimate success in this appeal,” the DCA ruling reads.
Friday’s decision is the latest action in back-and-forth court battle that has spanned weeks as schools in Florida reopened for the fall. A circuit court ruled last week that the DeSantis administration, through the Florida Department of Education and the state Department of Health, exceeded its authority by blocking mask mandates in schools.
But DeSantis appealed that decision, and now has been awarded a stay that blocks the ruling from taking hold.
“Just like last year in the school re-opening litigation, the First District Court of Appeal has reinstated Florida’s ability to protect the freedom for parents to make the best decisions for their children while they make their own ruling on the appeal,” said DeSantis’ communications direction Taryn Fenske. “We look forward to winning the appeal and will continue to fight for parents’ rights.”
The fight over masks in schools has become one of the most contentious battles in Florida over how to control the virus, which ravaged the state over the summer. Amid the Delta variant surge, DeSantis continued to prohibit Covid-related restrictions and zeroed in on the student mask issue ahead of his 2022 reelection bid.
Attorneys representing the parents who sued DeSantis this week argued in court that stopping the ruling during the state’s appeal would lead to “more sick and dead children” in schools.
“With a stay in place, students, parents and teachers are back in harm’s way,” Charles Gallagher, an attorney for the parents, said in a tweet.
The DeSantis executive order and emergency rules thwarting mask mandates in schools were rooted in the so-called Parents’ Bill of Rights bill that the GOP-dominated Florida Legislature approved and that DeSantis signed into law earlier this year. The state argues that law prohibits schools from mandating masks, but the circuit court disagreed.
Now, the appeals court is expressing “serious doubts about standing, jurisdiction, and other threshold matters” in the lawsuit brought forward by parents.
With the DeSantis mask policies back in effect, school board members in some 13 counties — including five in GOP-leaning counties — are in jeopardy of losing their monthly paychecks for defying the state. Those school districts represent more than half of the 2.9 million public school students in Florida.
So far, only Alachua and Broward counties have been officially sanctioned by the Florida Department of Education.
"The decision is disappointing, but we understood from the beginning that the legal battle over masks in schools would take time and not every decision would be favorable,” said Carlee Simon, superintendent of Alachua school district.
Although school leaders face financial consequences, President Joe Biden pledged Thursday to replenish the cash lost over punishments stemming from mask rules, the latest counter to DeSantis and other Republican governors opposed to mandates. Education Department officials expect to open applications for a new penalty reimbursement grant program in the coming weeks.
Florida’s ongoing legal saga over masks in schools is also playing out in a different arena with at least four school boards seeking to throw out the state Department of Health rule that blocks local schools from requiring students to wear face coverings. In a federal court case, a judge is expected to rule soon on the state's attempt to dismiss the lawsuit, which challenges that the ban on mask mandates puts children with disabilities at risk.
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