Teachers, Lawmakers Exhale After Judge Quashes Anti-Mask Order

In a major rebuke to Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration's attempt to rob public school districts of the authority to require mask-wearing and potentially penalize the ones that do, a Florida judge on Friday ruled that the governor didn't have the authority to do so.

Leon County Circuit Court Judge John Cooper tore down the state's legal argument, and ruled that DeSantis' executive order was overreaching, adding that the governor did not have the authority to outright ban school districts from enacting their own mask mandates.

The ruling comes about a month after DeSantis had doubled down on dangerous anti-mask rhetoric and issued an executive order on July 30, barring public school districts from issuing their own mask mandates and allowing parents to decide "whether their children should wear masks in school." The State Board of Education had suggested withholding salaries and removing officers from any public school districts that adopt mask mandates, including Miami-Dade County Public Schools and Broward County Public Schools.

After several days of evidence being presented at the virtual trial proceedings, Cooper heard final arguments Thursday from both the state, as well as attorneys representing parents of students who were aiming to dismantle the governor's executive order.

During a Friday morning hearing that was held on Zoom, Cooper said: "The evidence clearly demonstrates that the recommendation of the CDC for universal masking of students, teachers, and staff represents the overwhelming consensus of scientists, medical doctors, and medical organizations," the judge said during the hearing.

"Although no individual school policy is in front of me, I have heard significant evidence concerning the medical and scientific basis for face mask policies, and I conclude that this evidence demonstrates that face mask policies that follow CDC guidance are, at this point in time, reasonable and consistent with the best scientific and medical opinion guidance in the country."

Cooper's decision will almost certainly be challenged by DeSantis' team in the coming days and weeks, setting up for a potentially protracted legal battle.

The executive order is now invalidated.

DeSantis' office did not immediately return a request for comment from New Times.

In the meantime, New Times rounded up reactions from local and state officials, teacher unions, and superintendents who were overwhelmingly in favor of the judge's ruling.

Teachers Unions and Superintendents

Teachers unions in Miami-Dade and Broward counties celebrated Cooper's ruling Friday, saying the decision was one grounded in science and reason — and a smack-down of partisan politics.

United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernandez-Mats says the union was very pleased with the judge’s decision on Friday afternoon.

“We’re elated, to be honest with you,” she tells New Times. “We’re glad that Judge John Cooper had the knowledge and the common sense because this wasn’t a really difficult ruling.”

She says the decision brings a sense of relief not only for teachers, but for the school boards, school board members, and superintendents whose salaries have been threatened by DeSantis in recent weeks.

As for Broward teachers, who are still mourning the loss of three educators who died of COVID-19 within 24 hours span just before the school year kicked off, Teachers Union President Anna Fusco says: "I'm feeling that the law prevailed, and an honorable judge who saw through what our governor was trying to do called him out on it and said, you know, you overstepped your lane."

Florida Elected Officials

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Alex DeLuca is a fellow at Miami New Times.
Contact: Alex DeLuca
Michael Majchrowicz is a staff writer at Miami New Times. He studied journalism at Indiana University and has reported for PolitiFact, The New York Times, Washington Post and Tampa Bay Times.