(The Center Square) – A state judge Friday invalidated Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order prohibiting school boards from imposing mask mandates, but Florida is withholding funding for two districts that violated the order and state Attorney General Ashley Moody is warning boards to comply or face consequences.
Responding to a request by the Suwannee County School Board to ascertain if it “must follow Florida law as written” after the ruling or can “selectively enforce” COVID-19 protocols recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), Moody said districts must follow the law.
Last Friday, 2nd Judicial Circuit Judge John Cooper’s ruled DeSantis overstepped his authority when he signed his June 30 executive order that was based on House Bill 241, the ‘Parents’ Bill of Rights Act,’ adopted by lawmakers during their 2021 session.
Cooper’s oral ruling concluded a four-day trial in stemming from a May lawsuit filed by parents from seven counties alleging DeSantis’ order unconstitutionally bars school boards from managing the pandemic in local schools.
Cooper did not issue an injunction suspending DeSantis’ order, but is expected to do so this week. How he crafts that order will affect how the state’s Department of Education (DOE). Board of Education (BOE) and lawmakers respond.
The Suwannee board requested an opinion from Moody on how it would respond as it ponders a proposed mask mandate. If imposed, Suwannee would join at least 12 other Florida school boards that have done so – including 10 since the BOE on Aug. 17 agreed to penalize the Alachua and Broward boards for adopting universal mask policies.
But Moody said Cooper’s ruling narrowly addresses alleged overreach by the governor in the context of HB 241, under which the state cannot “infringe on the fundamental rights of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health” of a child.
Cooper said the state can enforce HB 241, but must “do so in accordance with the terms of the law” and ruled school boards can impose mask mandates if, as the law states, they “demonstrate its reasonableness and the other factors.”
In her response, Moody said Cooper’s ruling does not make DeSantis’ order invalid nor does it repeal Rule 64DER21-12, which authorizes the state’s Department of Health (DOH) to issue rules governing “the control of preventable communicable diseases” in schools.
"Notably, while you say that there is pending litigation regarding the validity of the underlying legal authorities, there does not appear to be pending litigation on the question whether school districts must comply with those authorities pending such litigation,” Moody wrote. “It is my opinion that the district must comply with Rule 64DER21-12 and any other applicable authorities unless and until the judiciary declares them invalid.”
State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran Monday announced the DOE had withheld funds from Alachua and Broward county school districts for violating the order.
“We’re going to fight to protect parent’s rights to make health care decisions for their children,” Corcoran said. “They know what is best for their children. What’s unacceptable is the politicians who have raised their right hands and pledged, under oath, to uphold the Constitution but are not doing so. Simply said, elected officials cannot pick and choose what laws they want to follow.”
Cooper has not “declared the rule to be invalid, and as such, this advisory opinion clearly states that multiple school districts are breaking the law by violating parents’ rights,” DOE spokesman Jared Ochs said. “Today, the (DOE) 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.”