Governor Ron DeSantis’s crusade to ban mask mandates in Florida schools violates a parents’ rights law, a Florida judge ruled today. This started in July when DeSantis declared war on school mask requirements with an executive order directing the Florida Commissioner of Education to withhold funds to schools that instituted no-opt-out mandates; parents sued DeSantis, the Florida Department of Education, and other state entities, arguing that forcing schools to allow opt-outs violates the state constitution by putting their children at risk.
Throughout, DeSantis and the states’ Department of Education and Board of Education have armed themselves with the recently-enacted Parent’s Bill of Rights. The rule says that the government may not “infringe on the fundamental rights of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health of his or her minor child.” Earlier this month, the Department of Education and the State Board of Education likewise issued an emergency rule to ostensibly “protect parents’ right” to send their children to schools unmasked. They warned that the State Board of Education could withhold funds from supposedly non-compliant school districts and threw in a “HOPE” scholarship for private education tuition for children who’ve been subjected to “COVID-19 harassment.”
DeSantis signed the Parent’s Bill of Rights into law just a month before he issued the executive order banning mask mandates. The parents’ rights banner has come in pretty handy for his administration, as well as people like this guy, who was arrested after shoving a student and twisting her arm.
But Judge John C. Cooper argued that Florida departments that are weaponizing “parents’ rights” in order to block school mask mandates are infringing on their own pet policy. Cooper found that the states’ parental bill of rights specifically protects the pro-mask schools in this case, as it adds that government entities can’t infringe on rights “without demonstrating that such action is reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest” and acting in the narrowest possible scope.
“It does not authorize the governor, the Department of Education, or the state Board of Education to say to schools: you can not adopt a blanket face mask policy unless it has a parental opt-out,” Judge Cooper said today in a hearing held over Zoom. “What it does say is, that if you do that, it has to be reasonable, support a state purpose, has to be narrowly drawn, and not otherwise accomplished by some narrower means.” He went on to cite existing state law requiring polio and measles vaccines, which he argued is much more potentially infringing.
Cooper issued a permanent injunction against the defendants—excluding DeSantis because he’s not an enforcement entity—from intervening in local school boards’ no opt-out mandates. School districts will now have to exercise their right to defend the mask mandates.
Florida is currently suffering its deadliest-ever covid-19 surge. New York Times data shows that, as of Thursday, 242 covid-19-related deaths were reported daily in the state. The Times’s covid tracker also shows that the state is suffering the third-highest rate of deaths per 100,000 people, after Louisiana and Mississippi. Florida schools have been open since August 11th.