Judge signs order giving Florida school boards power to issue mask mandates to combat COVID

Ruling came last week, official order issued Thursday

A packed Seminole County School Board meeting on Sept. 2, 2021 to decisions a mask mandate in schools due to rising COVID-19 cases. (Jeff Segers, WKMG 2021)

LEON COUNTY, Fla. – Florida school districts can legally require their students to wear face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 after Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper filed his decision he made during a ruling last week.

Following a four-day virtual hearing for a lawsuit filed by more than a dozen Florida families against the state for its mask mandate ban in schools, Cooper said Gov. Ron DeSantis overstepped his authority when he issued an executive order banning such mandates.

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On Thursday, Cooper officially filed his 36-page order, making the decision official. DeSantis has already said the state plans to appeal.

Cooper’s ruling says DeSantis’ executive order giving parents the final say if their children wear masks in school is unconstitutional and cannot be enforced.

Cooper said DeSantis’ order “is without legal authority.” In his order, Cooper wrote that when DeSantis let the state of emergency lapse in June he lost his emergency powers.

Since the decision last week, more than 10 Florida school boards have now voted to defy DeSantis and impose mask requirements with no parental opt-out, including Orange, Brevard, Volusia and others. However, the Florida Department of Education began withholding payments this week to school boards in Alachua and Broward counties for defying the governor’s order.

Cooper’s order says Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran violated Florida law by imposing financial penalties against school districts.

“The law of Florida does not permit the defendants to punish school boards, its members, or officials for adopting face mask mandates with no parental opt-outs if the schools boards have been denied their due process rights under the Parents’ Bill of Rights to show that this policy is reasonable and meets the requirements of the statute,” Cooper wrote.

The injunction bars the Department of Education from enforcing DeSantis’s order.

On Thursday, school boards in Lake and Seminole counties were meeting to discuss changes to mask policies.

With Cooper’s decision, “local school boards can adopt policies dealing with the health and education of school children,” he wrote.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.