MIAMI — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration won approval on Friday to put a hold on a Leon County judge’s ruling that said the state could not enforce a ban on strict mask mandates in schools.
The 1st District Court of Appeal agreed to a state request to reinstate a stay on Judge John Cooper’s ruling amid objections from a group of parents who said the move could cause “irreparable harm” to their children amid a rise of COVID-19 cases.
The decision means the state can continue to punish school officials who impose mask mandates without a parent opt-out.
Cooper ruled last month that the state could not penalize districts that impose strict mask mandates if they demonstrate the policy is “reasonable” and necessary to achieve a “compelling state interest.”
“Upon our review of the trial court’s final judgment and the operative pleadings, we have serious doubts about standing, jurisdiction, and other threshold matters,” the order states. “These doubts significantly militate against vacating the automatic stay, the stay should have been left in place pending appellate review.”
“We are disappointed by the ruling and will be seeking pass-through jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Florida. With a stay in place, students, parents and teachers are back in harm’s way,” said Charles Gallagher, the lead attorney for the group of parents suing the state over its mask mandate.
DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran have been locked in the court battle with parents over the state’s mask orders as a growing number of school districts have imposed mask mandates.
Thirteen of Florida’s 67 school districts so far have strict mask requirements in defiance of the state’s order. In response, the state has begun to withhold funds equivalent to the monthly salaries of school board members in Broward and Alachua counties and started investigating others for non-compliance.
The state’s financial penalties are likely to be offset by federal dollars. President Joe Biden’s administration on Thursday announced the creation of a new grant designed specifically to cover any fines or withholding of funds that school districts face because of their mask rules.