Law & Courts

Federal Judge Denies Parents’ Suit to Block Florida’s Ban on School Mask Mandates

By David Goodhue, Miami Herald — September 16, 2021 3 min read
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the opening of a monoclonal antibody site in Pembroke Pines, Fla., on Aug. 18, 2021. The on-again, off-again ban imposed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to prevent mandating masks for Florida school students is back in force. The 1st District Court of Appeal ruled Friday, Sept. 10, that a Tallahassee judge should not have lifted an automatic stay two days ago that halted enforcement of the mask mandate ban.
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A federal judge in Miami Wednesday declined to block Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on public school mask mandates, saying the parents of students with disabilities who sued the governor had not exhausted all remedies at their schools to accommodate their children’s needs before bringing the case to court.

The 12 parents, whose children go to school in eight school districts across the state, including Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach, had argued that their children, due to health conditions, were at particular risk of becoming ill or dying from COVID-19 if any of their peers attend school in-person without facial coverings.

They contended that DeSantis’ July 30 executive order banning mask mandates in schools violated their children’s rights to an equal education under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

See Also

Julia Longoria has joined a federal lawsuit by Disability Rights Texas against Texas Governor Greg Abbott over his ban on mask mandates in public schools. Longoria argues that the executive order prevents her child, Juliana, who is medically at-risk, from being able to attend school safely. Juliana Ramirez, 8, a third grader at James Bonham Academy in San Antonio, Texas, has ADHD and severe asthma which puts her at risk of complications from COVID-19.
Julia Longoria has joined a federal lawsuit by Disability Rights Texas against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott over his ban on mask mandates in public schools. Longoria argues that the executive order prevents her child, Juliana, 8, who is medically at risk, from being able to attend school safely.
Julia Robinson for Education Week

U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore sided with DeSantis, whose lawyer, Rocco Testani, countered that the parents’ dissatisfaction stemmed from remote learning options at their schools, and they had to address those issues with their schools.

“Thus, the Court finds that under the circumstance presented in this case, Plaintiffs’ failure to exhaust their administrative remedies renders their requested relief to be out of line with the public interest,” Moore wrote in his order, denying the parents’ suit to stop DeSantis’ July 30 executive order. “Only after Plaintiffs have availed themselves of their administrative remedies would their requested relief be, potentially in line with the public interest.”

The 12 parents in the case live in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Alachua, Hillsborough, Orange, Pasco and Volusia counties.

The parents sued DeSantis, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the Florida Department of Education, and the school boards of Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Alachua, Hillsborough, Orange, Pasco and Volusia counties. The school boards were sued because they are the entities that would be charged with implementing DeSantis’ executive order.

Out of those districts, only one — Pasco County — does not have a mask mandate in place. A total of 13 school districts have so far defied DeSantis’ executive order.

The Florida Department of Education has withheld state funding from Broward and Alachua counties’ districts equivalent to the annual salaries of the school board members who voted to enforce mask mandates. The school boards of Broward and Alachua were the first in the state to impose mask mandates in schools.

School Mask Mandates at a Glance

  • As of Dec. 10, four states have bans in effect that prevent school districts from setting universal mask mandates, according to an Education Week analysis. Five additional states have such bans, but they have been blocked, suspended, or are not being enforced. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia require masks be worn in schools.

  • MASK MANDATE BAN IN EFFECT


    1. Florida

    On Sept. 22, Florida's surgeon general instituted a rule that gives parents and legal guardians "sole discretion" over masking in schools. On Nov. 5, a judge sided with the state health department in a legal challenge to rule. On Nov. 18 Gov. DeSantis signed a bill that allows parents to sue school districts that require masks.

    2. Oklahoma

    On Sept. 1, an Oklahoma judge temporarily blocked the state law banning school mask mandates, but students or their parents can still opt out of school mask mandates if they choose.

    3. Texas

    On Dec. 1, an appeals court halted a federal judge’s order that had stopped Texas from enforcing its ban on mask mandates in schools, allowing the prohibition to remain in effect.

    4. Utah

    In Utah, local health departments can issue 30-day school mask mandates with approval from the state or county government, according to the state’s top education official.

    MASK MANDATE BAN BLOCKED, SUSPENDED, OR NOT BEING ENFORCED


    1. Arizona

    On Sept. 27, a judge in Arizona blocked the state laws banning mask mandates that were set to take effect on Sept. 29. On Nov. 2, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld that ruling.

    2. Arkansas

    An Arkansas judge ruled on Dec. 29, that a law signed by the governor in April that prohibited local officials, including school boards, from setting mask mandates was unconstitutional. School districts have been able to set their own mask requirements since August when the judge put the law on hold.

    3. Iowa

    On Sept. 13, a federal judge ordered Iowa to halt enforcement of its law banning mask mandates in schools. The order was later extended. The case is now awaiting a ruling from a federal appeals court.

    4. South Carolina

    On Sept. 28, a federal judge suspended South Carolina from enforcing the rule that banned school districts from requiring masks for students.

    5. Tennessee

    MASKS REQUIRED


    1. California
    2. Connecticut
    3. Delaware
    4. District of Columbia
    5. Hawaii
    6. Illinois
    7. Louisiana

    According to a State of Emergency proclamation issued Nov. 23, and most recently extended on Jan. 19, students are required to wear masks in schools, but districts can opt out of the mandate if they adopt an isolation and quarantine policy consistent with the state's department of health protocols.

    8. Maryland

    On Jan. 5, the mask mandate was extended for 180 days, but newly allowed school districts to opt out if at least 80% of the county or 80% of their students and staff have been fully vaccinated.

    9. Massachusetts

    On Jan. 10, Massachusetts extended the state's mask requirement through Feb. 28. On Sept. 27, Massachusetts said schools can apply for a waiver from the face covering rules if 80% of their students and staff have been vaccinated. If a school reaches the 80% threshold, unvaccinated students and employees are still required to wear masks.

    10. Nevada
    11. New Jersey

    On Dec. 7, a judge ruled New Jersey's school mask mandate is "rational" and does not violate the U.S. Constitution.

    12. New Mexico
    13. New York
    14. Oregon
    15. Rhode Island
    16. Virginia

    An executive order from Virginia's new governor that is set to take effect on Jan. 24 rescinds the state's current school mask mandate and instead allows parents to opt their child out of any mask mandate at their school.

    17. Washington
  • Note: In Missouri, the state attorney general has threatened to sue school districts that require masks, citing a November ruling by a county judge that said local health orders tied to COVID-19 are illegal. (The ruling is being interpreted differently by different districts.) The state’s treasurer announced he was also cracking down on schools with mask mandates.
    Updated 01/20/2022| Sources: Local media reports | Learn more here

Jared Ochs, spokesman for the Florida Department of Education, was not immediately available to comment on Moore’s decision Wednesday evening.

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Education launched an investigation over whether Florida’s ban on mask mandates violates the civil rights of students with disabilities.

Matthew Dietz, one of the two attorneys for the plaintiffs, said Wednesday that Moore misconstrued a 2017 Supreme Court decision regarding the exhaustion of administrative remedies spelled out under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

He said that by not enjoining DeSantis’ order, the children are being excluded from their schools.

“Since exhaustion of administrative preconditions in Florida takes at least 75 days for a decision, this decision essentially blocks all children with disabilities who would be seriously injured or die if they became infected with COVID-19 from being able to return safely to their school,” Dietz said in an email.

He said he has not decided if he will file an appeal, adding he hoped the Biden administration would step in.

“We are disappointed in the decision of the Court and are evaluating our options at this point. We would hope and expect the Department of Education and the Department of Justice to opine on the rights of children with disabilities to be safely integrated into their local schools,” Dietz said.

Copyright (c) 2021, Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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