A Florida court on Friday rejected an attempt by Governor Ron DeSantis and other state officials to prevent mask mandates in schools during the state’s worst Covid-19 outbreak to date.
Judge John C. Cooper of the state’s Second Judicial Circuit said Florida school districts can impose strict mask mandates on students to contain the spread of the coronavirus. .
In a lengthy court ruling, Judge Cooper sided with parents of students in several school districts who had argued that the Florida Constitution requires schoolchildren to be kept safe, and masks would help achieve that in a pandemic. Florida had previously indicated that it would appeal an unfavorable ruling to a more conservative appeals court.
Lawyers of Mr. DeSantis, a Republican, and the Florida Department of Education had contradicted that an “old-fashioned” statement issued by state lawmakers earlier this year gave parents the right to decide whether their child should wear a mask. Judge Cooper disagreed, saying the new law “doesn’t ban mask mandates” and basically gives school districts the freedom to impose them.
“I’m a parent — parents’ rights are very important,” Judge Cooper said. “But they are not without some reasonable constraint, subject to security, reasonableness and an imperative need of the state.”
In a statement, the Ministry of Education said it would appeal.
“We are deeply disappointed that today’s ruling by the Second Judicial Circuit rejects the rule of law,” said Jared M. Ochs, a spokesman. “This decision violates the fundamental and established rights of parents to make private decisions about health care and education for children.”
The ruling, which was delivered in nearly two hours on Friday, came after a high-profile lawsuit was held via Zoom over the course of four days this week. At one point, more than 2,000 people watched Judge Cooper deliver his ruling in a live stream on YouTube.
Judge Cooper issued an injunction against the Department of Education, but not the governor, preventing it from punishing local school boards. Florida had threatened to withhold money from two school districts, Alachua and Broward, which were the first to impose strict mask mandates, for an amount equal to the school administrators’ monthly salaries.
Other Republican governors who have banned school mask mandates, including Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, also face legal challenges.
Florida is experiencing the worst moment of the pandemic after a relentless summer wave fueled by the Delta strain has left more people testing positive for, hospitalized with and dying from the virus than ever before. More children in the state are hospitalized with Covid-19 than at any other point. This week in Orange County, where Orlando is, children between the ages of 5 and 14 made up about 20 percent of new virus cases.
Classes have begun in recent weeks, causing 10 of the state’s 67 school districts, which make up about half of the state’s 2.8 million students, to defy the state and require masks with limited medical exemptions. Other districts made masks voluntarily or allowed parents to opt out for any reason.
Florida has allowed parents to apply for private school vouchers if they view mask mandates as “harassment” of their children.