TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A Leon County judge issued a critical written order late Thursday afternoon, explicitly stating that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and state education officials cannot ban local school districts from enacting universal mask mandates for students and cannot punish them for doing so.
But the legal fight is far from over.
Shortly after Judge John Cooper of the 2nd Judicial Circuit Court of Florida submitted his written order, DeSantis, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the Florida Department of Education, and the Florida Board of Education filed a notice of appeal.
That automatically triggers a stay of Cooper's order, meaning state education leaders can continue to pursue penalties against school districts that enact sweeping mask requirements, according to Florida Chancellor of Public Schools Jacob Oliva.
Oliva added, however, that "enforcement must cease if the stay is lifted."
DeSantis for weeks has argued the issue of masking children lies solely in the hands of parents and guardians under the newly passed Parents' Bill of Rights.
"There is no prohibition in the Parents' Bill of Rights against schools adopting mandatory face mask policies without a parental opt-out," Cooper wrote in his order.
The judge added "the Defendants do not have authority under this law" to enforce a "blanket mandate against a mandatory face mask policy by a local school board."
SPECIAL COVERAGE: State Of Education
School districts in Palm Beach, Indian River, and at least nine other counties in Florida are requiring students to wear facial coverings inside school buildings and on school district transportation without the ability to opt out.
"The Parents' Bill of Rights permits local school boards to enact policies relating to health care and education, including mask mandates," Cooper wrote in his order, adding that "a school district which adopts a policy (such as a mask mandate) is acting within the discretion given to it by the Legislature in the Parents' Bill of Rights."
The Florida Department of Education started withholding the salaries of school board members in Alachua and Broward counties on Aug. 26 as punishment for their mask mandates.
"The law of Florida does not permit the Defendants to punish school boards, its members, or officials for adopting face mask mandates with no parents opt-outs," Cooper wrote.
Speaking in West Palm Beach on Thursday, DeSantis said he expects Palm Beach County School Board members to be disciplined by the state for keeping the school district's universal mask mandate in place for students.
Superintendent Michael Burke sent a letter to Corcoran on Wednesday, saying the district's facial covering requirements are "reasonable" and do not violate a state emergency order issued in early August that gives parents the final say over whether their children are masked in school.
Burke argued "there is not a less restrictive means" to fight the coronavirus in schools following an "explosion of COVID-19 cases" during the 2021/22 academic year.
Corcoran has threatened to withhold the salaries of Palm Beach County School Board members if the district doesn't comply with that state directive. DeSantis said Thursday he anticipates the Florida Board of Education will follow through with those sanctions.
"I do think you'll see the Board of Education, in the meantime, discipline the politicians similar to what they did in Alachua," DeSantis said.
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DeSantis is now asking the First District Court of Appeal to review the case.
"I'm confident that we are gonna have a very, very strong appeal on that," DeSantis said. "This is really something that the politicians are doing. I think a lot of it's very political."
Palm Beach County School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri said Wednesday evening he's not sure how the state will proceed next.
"I've seen what they're doing to the other two districts, and they've already notified them that they're withholding school board salaries. I believe that's a violation of Judge Cooper's order," Barbieri said.
Barbieri and Burke have vehemently defended the school district's mask mandate, saying board members acted within their Constitutional authority to ensure the health, safety, and well-being of students.
"With respect to Floridians' constitutional freedoms, there has been no determination that has concluded a face-covering requirement for students is unconstitutional," Burke wrote in his letter to Corcoran. "Nothing in the Parents' Bill of Rights prohibits a face-covering requirement."
"Some people really want masks. Some people really don't," DeSantis said. "Why don't we just empower parents, let them make the best decision for their kids, and I think it'll end up working out."
The governor delivered his remarks Thursday at the Florida Department of Health in West Palm Beach, where he announced the state has administered 45,000 monoclonal antibody treatments at more than 20 sites to COVID-19 patients.
The treatments like Regeneron are lab-made proteins that assist your immune system in fighting off the virus.
DeSantis said the free treatments have led to a 25% reduction in daily hospital admissions for COVID-19, as well as a decline in emergency room visits for COVID-like illness.
"We saw the need to let people know about early treatment. We saw the need to provide easier access to people for this early treatment," DeSantis said. "And this is something that is working. It's having a positive effect."
For more information about where to find monoclonal antibody treatments in Florida, click here.
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