A judge in the U.S. state of Florida ruled Friday that school districts in the state may issue mask mandates for students, dealing a blow to the effort by Governor Ron DeSantis and other officials to block such orders.
Judge John Cooper of the Sunshine State's Second Judicial Circuit said that Florida's school districts may impose strict mask mandates on students to curb the spread of COVID-19, handing a defeat to DeSantis, whose administration has insisted on leaving decisions over whether to let children wear masks to their parents and had threatened to withhold funding for the first two school districts defying the governor's executive order banning mask mandates.
Cooper in his ruling sided with parents in six Florida counties who sued the DeSantis administration, arguing that the governor's order infringes on classroom safety guaranteed by the state's constitution.
The judge announced his ruling in a lengthy livestream video that lasted for nearly two hours, as the state was struggling to cope with its worst moment in the pandemic.
He said DeSantis' order "is without legal authority," adding that although the state law cited by the governor in opposing the mask mandate does give parents the ultimate right to make health-related decisions for their kids, it meanwhile exempts government actions that are needed to protect public health, and that a school district's decision to require student to wear masks during a pandemic is within that exemption.
"I'm a parent - parents' rights are very important," Cooper said. "But they're not without some reasonable limitation, depending upon safety, reasonableness and a compelling state need."
DeSantis struck a defiant tone in his response to the ruling, saying the judge's decision was against parents' rights and their ability to make the best educational and medical decisions for their family. He said his administration will continue to defend the law and parents' rights in Florida, and will immediately appeal the ruling.
In a statement, Florida's Department of Education, which along with the state's Department of Health was directed by DeSantis to implement the ban on mask mandates, said it would appeal.
"We are immensely disappointed that the ruling issued today by the Second Judicial Circuit discards the rule of law," said Jared Ochs, a spokesman for the education department. "This decision conflicts with basic and established rights of parents to make private health care and education decisions for children."
A brutal summer surge of the pandemic fueled by the spread of the Delta variant has left more Floridians testing positive for, hospitalized with and dying from COVID-19 than at any point during the pandemic before.
The reopening of schools over the past few weeks has coincided with the worsening virus conditions, prompting 10 of the state's 67 countywide school districts, covering a majority of the state's 2.8 million public school students, to defy DeSantis' anti-mask executive order and require students to mask up in class unless they are excused for medical reasons.