Attorneys for Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday began calling witnesses to back the state’s case against allowing school districts to impose student mask mandates, as a hearing continued in a lawsuit challenging a DeSantis executive order.
As the legal battle plays out, eight school districts as of Tuesday afternoon had voted to require masks for students, with exceptions only for students whose parents submit doctors’ notes. The mask mandates in the eight counties cover an estimated 1.23 million students, based on state enrollment data from the 2020-2021 school year.
DeSantis issued the order July 30 in an effort to block county school boards from requiring students to wear masks as the delta variant of the coronavirus has caused a surge in COVID-19 cases. The governor contends that parents should be able to decide whether their children wear masks.
But a group of parents filed the lawsuit, alleging that the executive order violates a section of the state Constitution that requires providing a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system” of public schools. Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper began hearing testimony Monday and is scheduled to finish Wednesday.
The hearing Tuesday kicked off with plaintiffs’ attorneys calling medical doctors as witnesses, with arguments centered mostly on the efficacy of wearing masks to help the spread of COVID-19.
“It keeps me from sharing my germs with you, and it keeps you from sharing your germs with me. So, regardless of whether I’m vaccinated or not or you’re vaccinated or not, it is protecting both of us,” said Mona Mangat, an allergist and immunologist.
The state’s lawyers later called their first witness, Stanford University professor of medicine Jay Bhattacharya, who testified about “harms” of requiring children to wear masks.
“If you look at the pre-COVID literature, it emphasizes that children need to be able to see faces in order to develop in many, many ways, including social development, emotional development, some evidence on language acquisition. Especially with young children,” Bhattacharya said.
Bhattacharya also argued that the emergence of the delta variant hasn’t changed his mind on earlier statements he made that masks aren’t effective in staving off spread of the disease.
“The delta variant, as I said from the data on the U.K. (United Kingdom), is less deadly, perhaps more transmissible. There’s no randomized evidence, no high-quality evidence that masks stop the disease spread,” Bhattacharya said.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers and witnesses on Monday argued that the delta variant warrants school mask requirements. But Bhattacharya said masks are “orders of magnitude” less effective than vaccines in preventing COVID-19 infections.
Plaintiffs in the case, which names as defendants DeSantis, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the state Department of Education and the State Board of Education, say their children are too young to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Attorneys for the state on Tuesday also played a video of a roundtable event that DeSantis hosted, with Bhattacharya participating. Bhattacharya has taken part in multiple press events held by DeSantis during the pandemic.
Attorneys representing the parents asked Bhattacharya about his experience as a physician. Bhattacharya answered that he does research full-time and has never treated a patient for COVID-19.
The state on Wednesday is set to call as witnesses parents who oppose mask mandates.
Meanwhile, a growing number of school districts have set mask requirements in opposition to DeSantis’ order and a resulting Department of Health rule that says parents must be able to opt out of mandates.
The Duval County School Board on Monday became the eighth district to approve a mask mandate with only medical reasons allowed as exceptions. It joined Alachua, Broward, Palm Beach, Sarasota, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade and Leon counties.
State Board of Education Chairman Tom Grady and Vice Chairman Ben Gibson signed orders Friday that threatened to withhold district funds in amounts equal to the collective monthly salaries of school board members if districts did not change course. The orders were directed to the Alachua and Broward school districts.
Broward County responded to the state Tuesday, saying the district will not reverse course despite pressure from the state board.
“In our reply, what we have stated to them is that we do believe that it is an overreach of their authority, that we are legally compliant, and we have respectfully requested that they rescind the order that has been placed upon Broward County schools,” district Interim Superintendent Vickie Cartwright said during a media briefing Tuesday.
In a written response to the state board Sunday, Alachua County Superintendent Carlee Simon also held firm to the district’s mask policy.
–Ryan Dailey, News Service of Florida