WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The superintendent of Palm Beach County public schools said Friday he's pleased with a major decision by a Florida judge to allow school districts to impose universal mask mandates to protect children from the spread of COVID-19.
Judge John Cooper of the 2nd Judicial Circuit Court of Florida said Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Department of Education cannot ban school officials from requiring masks for students.
Less than an hour after that ruling, DeSantis' office released a statement saying it "will immediately appeal" Cooper's decision.
"I was pleased to see it," Superintendent Michael Burke said in an interview with WPTV anchor Michael Williams. "I think it validates that the governor may have overstepped his authority, and that the level of local control that we should enjoy needs to be respected."
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All K-12 students in the School District of Palm Beach County are now required to wear facial coverings inside school buildings and on school district transportation without the ability to opt out.
The only exceptions are for children with certain medical conditions. The mandate is in effect for 90 days, but can be modified before then.
"If the positivity rates go way down and we're no longer facing these grave concerns, then they can revisit the requirements," Burke said. "But at this point, they're in place and we're gonna keep them in place until we feel like it would be safe to do otherwise."
According to the latest numbers from the School District of Palm Beach County, there have been 2,505 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the 2021/22 academic year started on Aug. 10, including 2,223 students and and 281 employees.
As of Thursday, 5,609 students have been told to stay home because of possible exposure to COVID-19.
DeSantis has repeatedly argued that facial covering decisions fall under the guidelines of the newly passed Parents' Bill of Rights, which gives parents and guardians general control over a child's education, upbringing, and health care.
The governor issued an emergency order in late July that was designed to allow parents to have the final say over whether their children should be masked in school.
However, Cooper on Friday said the Parents' Bill of Rights says nothing of banning school mask mandates, and DeSantis' order "is without legal authority."
"I respect parents' rights," Burke said. "But when we have a community of students going into confined spaces, you kind of have to respect the rights of everyone in there."
The superintendent added there are "limitations to the individual right for the collective good of the community."
"When your rights get to the point where they're putting someone else in potential danger, then you have to look at the greater good of the community and do what's right across everyone," Burke said.
Palm Beach County School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri on Friday sent the following statement to WPTV, calling it "a good day for public education and our kids in Palm Beach County":
"Today, Judge Cooper granted a permanent injunction, enjoining the Florida Department of Education, the Commissioner, and the State Board from enforcing rules that prohibit mask mandates in schools without parental opt-outs. The injunction would prevent the State Board, the Commissioner, and the Department of Education from taking actions against specific school districts that have imposed mask mandates that arguably violate the Executive Order or the Department of Health’s Emergency Rule on masks. The ruling appears to establish that individual boards have the authority to approve protocols based on the health and safety of students. This is a good day for public education and our kids in Palm Beach County."
At the start of the 2021/22 school year, Palm Beach County was allowing public school students to opt out of wearing masks. But school board members voted on Aug. 18 to amend their COVID-19 policies and remove that opt out provision due, in part, to the surging number of coronavirus cases among children.
At its highest point, roughly 12,000 of the 164,000 students enrolled in the School District of Palm Beach County had opted out of wearing facial coverings.
Earlier this week, the Palm Beach County School Board voted unanimously to explore legal action against DeSantis, saying he overstepped his Constitutional authority by stripping board members of their ability to make health-related decisions to provide a "safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools."