Law & Courts

Florida Attorney General Joins Mask Mandate Legal Fight as State Defies Court Ruling

By Ana Ceballos, Miami Herald — September 02, 2021 4 min read
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody speaks alongside Gov. Ron DeSantis during a news conference, Thursday, April 8, 2021, at PortMiami in Miami.
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Attorney General Ashley Moody on Wednesday injected her legal opinion into Florida’s ongoing court battle over school mask mandates, adding noise to an increasingly political fight.

Moody, a Republican ally of Gov. Ron DeSantis, said school districts must comply with a state rule that says parents must have the ability to opt their kids out of mask requirements “unless and until the judiciary declares them invalid.”

Her legal opinion comes days after a Leon County judge ruled that DeSantis and his administration “acted without legal authority” when issuing and enforcing a blanket ban on mask mandates. The ruling was delivered orally and is not effective until written and filed. As of Wednesday evening, no ruling has been filed, which has given an opening to DeSantis and his administration to act.

Minutes after Moody published her legal opinion, the Florida Department of Education issued a statement that said her legal opinion proves districts have broken the law and need to follow state orders because “the judiciary has not declared the rule to be invalid.”

“Today, the department is urging every school district that has mandated masks without an opt out to promptly change its policies and comply with Florida’s rules and laws,” said Department of Education spokesman Jared Ochs, who did not immediately respond when asked if the state agency coordinated with Moody’s office.

11 districts defying the state’s order

Eleven of Florida’s 67 school districts have imposed temporary strict mask mandates to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Two districts — Broward and Alachua — have been sanctioned as a result of requiring parents to provide a doctor’s note before they can opt out of masking requirements. Eight other districts, including Miami-Dade and Hillsborough, have been told by the state they are in non-compliance and could face sanctions.

Charles Gallagher, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the mask mandate case, said he believes the state is acting inappropriately. He said there is legal precedent that “holds an oral ruling valid and enforceable” until the time it is memorialized in writing.

Gallagher said both parties have the transcript of Circuit Court Judge John Cooper’s ruling, therefore, he argued, the state “cannot claim confusion” and defy the court order.

“I don’t believe it’s appropriate to defy the court’s oral ruling,” Gallagher said in an email to the Herald/ Times on Wednesday.

School Mask Mandates at a Glance

This information is no longer being updated. The last data update was on May 23, 2022.

  • 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. Georgia

    On March 29, Gov. Kemp signed the “Unmask Georgia Students Act” which allows parents to exempt their child from a school mask requirement. The law went into effect immediately.

    3. Iowa

    On Sept. 13, 2021, a federal judge ordered Iowa to halt enforcement of its law banning mask mandates in schools. On Jan. 25, 2022, a federal appeals panel narrowed that injunction. Iowa’s attorney general announced the state is not enforcing the ban while awaiting further action from the court. On May 16, 2022 a U.S. Court of Appeals lifted the injunction.

    4. 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.

    5. 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.

    6. Virginia

    On Jan. 15, Gov. Youngkin issued an executive order allowing parents to opt their child out of any school mask mandate. It effectively rescinded the state's school mask requirement that had been in place since August. That executive order was later halted by a judge. On Feb. 14, the Virginia legislature passed a measure that bans school mask mandates. That bill was signed by the governor on Feb. 16 and went into effect on March 1.

    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. On April 25, Gov. Ducey signed HB2616, which prevents schools from requiring a student to wear a mask without first getting parental consent. The ban, which replaces the one blocked by the courts, will go into effect 90 days after the legislature adjourns.

    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. South Carolina

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

    4. Tennessee
    5. Texas

    On March 17, an appeals court upheld an injunction that blocked Gov. Abbott's executive order banning mask mandates in schools, finding it is unlawful and exceeding the governor's authority. This is not the first time the state's ban has been halted by a judge.

    MASK REQUIREMENT IN EFFECT


    1. Hawaii

    Although Hawaii's state-wide indoor mask mandate ended on March 25, indoor masking will still be required in public schools at least through the summer.

    PREVIOUSLY HAD MASK REQUIREMENT


    1. California

    On Feb. 28, the governors of California, Oregon, and Washington issued a joint announcement that mask requirements would end in their states effective March 12.

    2. Connecticut

    On Feb. 7, Gov. Lamont announced that the school mask rule would expire Feb. 28. He signed a bill on Feb. 15 that made the expiration date official.

    3. Delaware

    On Feb. 7, Gov. Carney amended his emergency order to allow his state-level school mask requirement to expire March 31. On Feb. 28, he announced that masks would no longer be required effective at 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday, March 1.

    4. District of Columbia

    On March 8, the department of health released updated guidelines that recommend universal masking only when community COVID-19 levels are high.

    5. Illinois

    On Feb. 5, a judge issued a temporary restraining order on the governor's statewide mask requirement. On Feb. 25, the state supreme court vacated that order. On the same day, the governor announced he would lift the requirement on Feb. 28.

    6. Kentucky

    Kentucky's school mask mandate ended in September, when the state legislature voted to limit the governor’s emergency powers.

    7. Louisiana

    According to a State of Emergency proclamation issued Nov. 23, which was extended on Jan. 19, students were required to wear masks in schools, but districts could opt out of the mandate if they adopted an isolation and quarantine policy consistent with the state's department of health protocols. On Feb. 16, Gov. Bel Edwards extended the order without requiring masking in schools.

    8. Maryland

    On Jan. 5, the mask mandate was extended for 180 days, but allowed school districts to opt out if certain vaccination rates were met. On Feb. 22, the state board of education voted to rescind the mandate. On Feb. 25, a state legislative committee gave final approval to lift the mandate effective March 1.

    9. Massachusetts

    On Sept. 27, the state began allowing schools to apply for a waiver from the face covering rules for vaccinated individuals if certain vaccination rates were met. On Feb. 9, officials announced the statewide mask requirement for K-12 schools would be lifted on February 28.

    10. Nevada

    On Feb. 10, Gov. Sisolak announced the immediate suspension of the school mask requirement. The previous mask requirement had only applied to counties with populations of 100,000 people or more.

    11. New Jersey

    On Feb. 7, Gov. Murphy announced plans to end his state’s school-mask requirement on March 7.

    12. New Mexico

    On Feb. 17, Gov. Grisham announced the end of the mask requirement, effective immediately.

    13. New York

    On Jan. 24, a judge struck down the state's mask mandate. A day later, an appeals judge restored the mandate. On Feb. 27, Gov. Hochul announced the mandate would be lifted on March 2.

    14. Oregon

    On Feb. 7, health officials said the state would drop its school mask requirement no later than March 31. On Feb. 24, the Oregon Health Authority announced the requirement would lift on March 19. However, on Feb. 28, the governors of California, Oregon, and Washington issued a joint announcement that mask requirements would end in their states effective March 12.

    15. Pennsylvania

    A statewide mask mandate for Pennsylvania schoolchildren was thrown out by the state Supreme Court on December 10.

    16. Rhode Island

    On Feb. 9, Gov McKee announced the school mask mandate would only remain in effect until March 4. On Feb. 15, he signed an executive order specifying that the order would take effect at 5 p.m. on March 4.

    17. Virginia

    On Jan. 15, Gov. Youngkin issued an executive order allowing parents to opt their child out of any school mask mandate. It effectively rescinded the state's school mask requirement that had been in place since August. That executive order was later halted by a judge. On Feb. 14, the Virginia legislature passed a measure that bans school mask mandates. That bill was signed by the governor on Feb. 16 and went into effect on March 1.

    18. Washington

    On Feb. 17, Gov. Inslee announced the state's school mask requirement will end effective March 21. However, on Feb. 28, the governors of California, Oregon, and Washington issued a joint announcement that mask requirements would end in their states effective March 12.

  • NOTES
    In January 2022, the Missouri attorney general, Eric Schmitt, sued some school districts that required masks, citing a November ruling by a county judge that said local health orders tied to COVID-19 were illegal. (The ruling was interpreted differently by different districts.) The state’s treasurer announced he would also crack down on schools with mask mandates. In mid-March, Schmitt began dropping lawsuits against school districts that no longer required masks. On May 19, 2022 Schmitt announced new lawsuits against several districts that had reinstated mask requirements.
    On Feb. 23, 2022, New Hampshire’s governor announced the state was no longer recommending universal indoor masking and therefore schools have to end mask mandates, arguing they violate state education department rules. Soon after, the department advised districts that the mandates “are inconsistent with” their rules. There’s disagreement over whether districts still have the authority to require masks, but at least one district changed its policy in response. A bill that would have banned mask mandates was vetoed by Gov. Sununu in May 2022.
    Updated 5/23/2022 | Sources: Local media reports, Education Week reporting | Learn more here

Cooper ruled Friday that DeSantis exceeded his authority in barring universal mask mandates when he issued an executive order that drew its authority from portions of the Parents’ Bill of Rights. The law was approved by the Republican-dominated state Legislature and signed by the governor on June 29.

DeSantis was unable to wield his emergency power under state law to issue the executive order, Cooper added, because he had already allowed the COVID-19 state of emergency to lapse a month before he issued it. So, Cooper said, the governor has to rely on the written language of the new law.

The law says the state is not allowed to “infringe on the fundamental rights of a parent” to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health of a child “without demonstrating that such action is reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest.”

Legal limbo until order is written, final

Cooper argued the governor and his administration used the first half of the statute, but not the second part, when issuing an executive order and subsequent rules that barred districts from imposing strict mask mandates. Therefore, he said, the state’s mask orders were unlawful and districts could continue enforcing their mask mandates if they proved they were reasonable as the full law intends.

“My ruling in this case, if you want to put it in one sentence, is, I am enforcing the bill passed by the Legislature and requiring that anyone who uses that bill to follow all provisions and not part of the provisions,” Cooper said.

The problem is the ruling is in somewhat of a legal limbo. Cooper said his ruling would not be effective until it is written and filed. The attorneys representing the state made a point of asking Cooper to clarify that was the case.

Additionally, DeSantis and the Department of Education have said they intend to appeal immediately.

In her legal opinion, Moody noted an appeal would grant an automatic stay on the ruling unless a court vacates the stay. In other words, once the state appeals, and it intends to do so, Cooper’s ruling will be paused and the governor’s executive order will go back into effect and the state will enforce it, unless a court says otherwise.

That means the status quo could remain in place as 11 Florida school districts defy the governor’s mask orders by requiring a doctor’s note before kids can opt out of a mandate.

See Also

Students sit in an Algebra class at Barbara Coleman Senior High School on the first day of school, in Miami Lakes, Fla., on Aug. 23, 2021. Florida school districts can legally require their students to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a judge ruled Friday, Aug, 27, saying Gov. Ron DeSantis overstepped his authority when he issued an executive order banning such mandates.
Students sit in an Algebra class at Barbara Coleman Senior High School on the first day of school, in Miami Lakes, Fla., on Aug. 23, 2021. Florida school districts can legally require their students to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a judge ruled Friday, Aug, 27, saying Gov. Ron DeSantis overstepped his authority when he issued an executive order banning such mandates.
Marta Lavandier/AP
School & District Management Florida Withholds School Board Salaries Over Mask Mandates
Scott Travis, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, August 31, 2021
5 min read

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran on Monday announced that he has begun withholding money from the Broward and Alachua school districts, which imposed stricter mask mandates than the governor wanted.

Broward and Alachua were the first to go through the state’s inquiry process over the issue. But eight other districts, including the largest ones in the state — Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Palm Beach, Duval and Orange counties — have been asked by the state to respond this week on whether they intend to reverse course or not.

Their deadline to reply was 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Tampa Bay Times reporter Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.

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

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