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

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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