Some school districts will continue to impose their strict mask mandates, even though a key court ruling has been appealed and the legal battle continues over who has control over mask-wearing at public schools — local boards or the DeSantis administration.
Chris Petley, a communications staffer for the Leon County School District at the state capital, said the district will keep its mask mandate in place, which requires students in kindergarten through 8th grade to wear masks and only allows kids to opt out for medical reasons.
“Nothing changes for us,” Petley told the Phoenix.
A communications staffer with the Miami-Dade school district told the Phoenix the district is standing by its mask policy, which requires everyone over the age of two to wear a mask in school unless the student has a medical opt out. The district insists that it “remains in compliance” with state laws and rules.
And the Alachua County school district, in the Gainesville area, will also carry on with its strict mask mandate, regardless of the current state of a lawsuit on the mask issue.
“It really doesn’t affect what were doing with our mask policy,” Jackie Johnson, communications staffer for the Alachua County school district, told the Florida Phoenix. The district has been hit with financial penalties from the state for its strict mask policy, which requires all students to wear a masks unless there is a medical reason.
“We still feel that we are following the law, and that’s something that the judge (John Cooper) agreed with as well,” Johnson said.
[Flagler County schools do not have a mask mandate. An attempt to enact an emergency mandate for a few weeks failed on Aug. 17.]
At issue is an ongoing debate on whether local school boards should be able to mandate masks for schoolchildren during the surge of COVID-19 cases in Florida, or if such decisions should be left up to parents.
The DeSantis administration says parents, not local school boards, should make decisions on masks for their children. The opinion of state education officials is that districts with strict mask mandates are not complying with Florida law and rules that intend to protect a parent’s right to direct the upbringing of their children, and that includes masks.
Yet, under the Florida Constitution, school boards have the power to make those decisions. And there are at least a dozen districts that have implemented mask policies that only allow students to opt out for a medical reason, despite potentially facing penalties from state education officials.
This conflict led to litigation and a ruling on Aug. 27 that would enjoin Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the state Department of Education and the Florida Board of Education from imposing a blanket ban on face mask mandates by school boards. Leon Circuit Judge John Cooper verbally announced that decision, but the written order did not come down until Thursday.
The defendants, Corcoran and his colleagues, quickly appealed the ruling to the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee.
The appeal triggers what’s called an “automatic stay,” meaning that the judge’s ruling is not currently in effect while the appeal process continues.
Plaintiffs in the suit — some parents worried about their children’s safety during the pandemic without a strict mask mandate — are already working to overturn the automatic stay, which would reactivate Judge Cooper’s initial ruling and bar state education officials from penalizing districts for strict mask mandates while the appeal plays out.
Florida Education Association president Andrew Spar said that districts imposing strict mask mandates this school year are on the “right side of the law.”
“I’ll say what we had hoped last year, and that I still hope this year — is that the justices look at the law, look at the need to protect the health of all,” Spar told the Phoenix.
He also expected that some districts would continue to impose mask mandates as the lawsuit shakes out in the appellate court.
“And I think what school districts are saying in their responses to the Commissioner of Education is that they are following the law,” Spar said.
“They have a constitutional responsibility…to keep kids safe.”
–Danielle J. Brown, Florida Phoenix