Florida judge rules against governor’s sanctions on school districts with mask mandates

Circuit Court Judge John Cooper on Friday verbally ruled against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ (R) planned retribution against local school districts that implement masking requirements. Judge Cooper’s ruling will effectively prevent DeSantis from sanctioning school districts that impose such requirements because doing so would violate H.B. 241, also known as the Parents’ Bill of Rights.

DeSantis issued an order on July 30 authorizing Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran to withhold funding from school districts with mask mandates. He also directed the state Department of Health and the Department of Education to “ensure that school COVID-19 restrictions are consistent with H.B 241…prohibiting state and government institutions from interfering with parents’ authority to make educational or healthcare decisions for their children.”

The Parents’ Bill of Rights states:

The state, any of its political subdivisions, any other governmental entity, or any other institution may not infringe on the fundamental rights of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health of his or her minor child without demonstrating that such action is reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest and that such action is narrowly tailored and is not otherwise served by a less restrictive means.

On August 6, parents of schoolchildren in the state filed a lawsuit for emergency injunctive relief, maintaining that the state has a constitutional duty to provide safe public schools.  In his Friday ruling, Judge Cooper used the language of H.B. 241 to rule against DeSantis, stating that the law “does not prohibit schools from enforcing mask mandates because [it] also allows for narrow restrictions to protect public health.” Cooper said “school boards can enact policies as long as they are reasonable, address a compelling state interest, are narrowly tailored, and are the least restrictive way of addressing the virus — the standards set forth in the Parents’ Bill of Rights.”

DeSantis and his administration vowed to appeal the decision, saying that the judge’s ruling was not based on the merits of the case. Many parents and school administrators, however, have expressed relief. Florida is among the top states recording high levels of new COVID-19 infections, with school-aged children accounting for a growing percentage of the recorded cases.

Judge Cooper asked both parties “to craft a proposed order by Monday, based on his findings, that he [will] use to issue a final ruling.” His decision will become effective once a written order is issued.