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.
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.
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.
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
MASK MANDATE BAN BLOCKED, SUSPENDED, OR NOT BEING ENFORCED
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.
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