Florida schools will be able to order staff and students to wear face masks while litigation against the state’s ban on school mask mandates plays out, a judge ruled Wednesday, halting the state’s efforts to punish schools that have enacted mask orders after the ban went back into effect when the state appealed a ruling striking it down.
Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled in favor of the Florida parents who brought the lawsuit against the state, who asked the court to strike down a stay that kept the school mask mandate ban in effect.
Cooper had previously issued a permanent injunction against Florida’s school mask mandate ban, which prohibits districts from imposing mandates unless they let parents opt their children out of them, saying state officials had overstepped their authority by issuing the ban and that it did not comply with state law.
The state then appealed that ruling, however, which triggered an automatic stay that temporarily blocked the ruling as the litigation played out—and let the state move forward with plans to withhold funding from Florida districts that have imposed mask mandates.
The parents that brought the lawsuit said that stay should be struck down because of the “irreparable harm” if the ban stays in effect, given its potential impact on Covid-19 transmission in schools, but the state claimed that argument was “unhelpful and irresponsible” and that the ban should remain in effect.
Cooper said during a hearing Wednesday he was setting the stay aside because he did not believe there would be any harm to the state if the ban was prohibited, while unvaccinated children face a higher threat of infection from the delta variant and masking is one of the only ways they can protect themselves against it.
The judge said he believed the case would succeed on appeal because the Florida Parents’ Bill of Rights—the law that the state said justified their ban—stipulates that school districts can impose policies that infringe on parents’ rights if they are “reasonable” and “narrowly tailored,” as the school mask mandates are.
“This case has generated a lot of heat and a lot of light, but the bottom line is this case is about enforcing the laws the legislature passed, and…that and the pandemic situation that we are in are why I think setting aside this stay is appropriate,” Cooper said Wednesday, noting his order striking down the stay would go into effect “immediately.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office said in a statement responding to the ruling that it was “no surprise” to them that Cooper “concluded that he is unlikely to be overruled on appeal” and that the state “(unsurprisingly) disagree[s].” The state intends to immediately file an emergency motion to have the stay reinstated.
At least 12. That’s how many school districts in Florida have enacted strict mask mandates, including those covering the state’s biggest cities like Orlando, Miami, Jacksonville, Tampa and Tallahassee. The state has already withheld funding against the first two counties to impose mask mandates equivalent to the amount of their school board members’ salaries, which they’ve said they’ll keep withholding on a monthly basis. They have also warned similar consequences will be coming for the other school districts that followed their lead, though districts have said they will keep their mandates in place despite the punishments they may face. The Florida Department of Education has moved forward with those consequences even in the wake of Cooper’s initial ruling, and FDOE director of communications Jared Ochs told Forbes last week the state would continue to withhold funding “until a court tells us we cannot.”
Florida is one of 10 states that have enacted some sort of ban on school mask mandates, though not all are presently in effect. Mask mandate bans have also been at least temporarily struck down in Arkansas, Tennessee and Oklahoma and Texas’ ban was put on hold as litigation plays out, though the South Carolina Supreme Court has upheld that state’s prohibition and struck down a school district’s mask mandate as a result. Florida’s ban has drawn particular scrutiny given the state’s massive Covid-19 surge, which has resulted in thousands of positive cases among schoolchildren, the deaths of a number of Florida teachers and caused some schools to temporarily shut down for in-person learning entirely. The state has continued to defend its ban on school mask mandates despite its outbreak and the controversy it’s caused, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has said he believed the state was “going to have really good grounds to appeal” Cooper’s initial ruling and that the ban will ultimately be upheld.