A Leon County judge ruled Wednesday that Governor Ron DeSantis and the state government cannot enforce a ban on school mask mandates until an appellate court makes a decision on the issue.
The Circuit Judge’s Decision
Circuit Judge John Cooper first ruled against DeSantis late last month, declaring he and the Board of Education did not have the power to withhold salaries from school districts who impose a mask mandate. DeSantis’s ban was set to stay in place until the appeals court made its ruling either way, but Judge Cooper has doubled down on his initial decision by lifting this automatic stay.
Lawyers representing parents who challenged Governor DeSantis in court had requested that Judge Cooper lift the stay so that mandates could be put in place at least until the appeals court rules. This was, in Cooper’s judgment, a necessary move to ensure students’ health in the meantime.
The next step in the battle between this group of public school parents and Governor DeSantis will be to have the case be heard by the 1st District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee. Even this 15-judge body may not be the final step, however, as the case has the potential to travel all the way to the Florida Supreme Court. Governor DeSantis has expressed confidence that the state will be victorious in the end: “What we’ve found is in the trial courts in Tallahassee, state and federal, we typically lose if there’s a political component to it, but then in the appeals court we almost always win,” he said following Cooper’s lift.
The battle between the two entities circles around the Parents’ Bill of Rights, and whether school boards have the power to mandate masks, or whether the decision lies with parents. The Parents’ Bill of Rights reserves the right to parents to make health and education decisions for their children unless a government body can show that a broader decision is reasonable
In his decision, Cooper asserts that DeSantis is focusing on the part of the law which reserves this right to the parents, while ignoring the caveat allowing school boards to make a broader decision if warranted.
“You have to show you have authority to do what you’re doing,” Cooper said. “You cannot enforce part of that law but not all of it.”
A familiar face to Flagler County residents is also serving as an important player in the mask mandate battle: former Flagler Schools Superintendent Jacob Oliva.
Oliva, who now serves as Public Schools Chancellor at the state’s Department of Education, issued a notice to Florida’s school superintendents: “Enforcement must cease if the stay is lifted.” For Florida’s 74 public school districts, that scenario has now come to pass.
What It Means for Flagler County
In their meeting Tuesday, the Flagler School Board again discussed the merits and legality of a potential mask mandate. Following a now-notorious August meeting which featured yelling and strong confrontation, the five board members again sat down with Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt, Board attorney Kristy Gavin, and public health officials to discuss the topic in Training Room 3 at the Government Services Building.
Colleen Conklin, the Board member who’d pushed the hardest for some form of mask mandate on August 17th, again advocated for the effectiveness of masks in containing the Delta variant. Jill Woolbright spoke of a personal doubt that any one measure would be enough to effectively curb the spread of COVID-19 in schools, and was adamant that the Board could not consider a mandate until DeSantis’s ban was legally overturned. At that point, she conceded, it would be a whole new ballgame.
Janet McDonald expressed her belief that masks were ineffective, and cited numbers that were refuted immediately by Department of Health official Stephen Bickel. Members Cheryl Massaro (who voted in favor of a mandate) and Board Chairman Trevor Tucker (who voted against) were less vocal in the Tuesday afternoon discussion.
The number of counties in Florida with a school mask mandate has now broken into double-digits. Volusia County recently mandated masks in their district, despite fiery opposition at their board meeting comparable to that at Flagler’s. From now until the 1st District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee rules, the Flagler County School Board will have nothing standing in the way of them changing course and implementing a mask mandate.
Some mask advocates consider Chairman Tucker to be the potential swing vote, as he was when he flipped to align with Conklin and Massaro on adding gender identity to the list of school protections in December 2020. It is likely that McDonald and Woolbright are locked in against the mandate, and that Conklin and Massaro are locked in for it.
Whether Tucker can be persuaded to repeat his momentous change of opinion will largely hang on how the Delta variant unfolds in the coming weeks, as well as the vocalness of each of the issue’s two camps. But as of right now, the School Board can institute a mandate if they want to. The state can’t punish them, and their legal standing is established for now.
Half of Flagler County’s COVID-19 caseload is comprised of students and school employees, according to data from last week. Cases in the county are generally higher now than they were at any point prior to the Delta variant, but numbers are down on a few fronts. The weekly caseload recently decreased for the first time since early August, and AdventHealth Palm Coast is reporting gradually decreasing numbers of COVID patients in their hospital beds.