NS. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) – Florida’s power struggle over wearing masks at school to protect against coronavirus infections landed in front of a judge Monday who was investigating a lawsuit challenging Governor Ron DeSantis’ order to keep the mask decision up to parents.
The three-day hearing before Leon County Judge John C. Cooper runs pro-masked parents against the Republican governor and state education officials who say parents, not schools, should decide whether their children are covered up in schools .
The hearings come as the highly contagious Delta variant is causing a surge in hospital admissions and deaths across Florida, where the school year is already suspended.
Some districts belatedly began to require masks, as recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after classroom exposure forced them to send thousands of students and hundreds of teachers and staff to isolation or quarantine.
At least seven school districts with more than a million Florida students opposed the governor’s order on Monday morning. State education officials have vowed to financially penalize districts that fail to comply for violating state laws unless they allow parents to de-register their children for some reason.
Charles Dodson, a former judge who represents parents contesting DeSantis’ order, said in an opening statement that the Delta variant affects children more than previous tribes and puts them at greater risk in crowded schools.
“Because of the Delta variant, our schools are not safe unless everyone is wearing a mask,” said Dodson. “It is certainly an emergency.”
The Florida Constitution and state law give school authorities the power to decide health and safety issues that affect their students, Dodson said. He asked the judge to block the DeSantis ordinance.
“Every local school board, and only every local school board, should be able to decide in each county whether or not to make mask compulsory,” Dodson said.
Most of Monday’s court session focused on testimony from plaintiffs and medical experts who support masks in schools and oppose DeSantis’ orders to ban them without parental consent. Monday’s final witness, Damaris Allen, a parent of a Hillsborough County high school student, said masks were important in containing the virus.
“I want to stop the virus from spreading in my community,” said Allen, president of Plant High School’s parent-teacher association. “Local school boards have the power to make decisions based on the needs of the local community.”
The hearing is set to continue on Tuesday.
An attorney for the defendants – DeSantis, Commissioner for Education Richard Corcoran, the state school board and the Department of Education – said the governor’s order was in accordance with the state’s constitution and law, particularly the Parents Bill of Rights, which came into force in July.
That law states that only parents and guardians can “direct the upbringing, education, health care and mental health” of their child, said attorney Michael Abel.
Abel said the state’s experts will testify that wearing masks for students causes a lot of harm – speech difficulties, mood swings, breathing problems and depression – while scientists disagree on their effectiveness against the coronavirus.
Citing state statistics from 2020, Abel said that 40 of the 67 school districts in Florida required masks and still had positive virus tests for 48 out of 1,000 students. Districts without a mask requirement tested positive for 50 out of 1,000 students.
“Mask mandates are unnecessary,” Abel said, adding that the state’s actions are compatible with state law and the Florida constitution.
The mask issue has sparked heated debates at school board meetings, with one side claiming that a ban on mandatory mask rules will prevent their children from receiving a safe education and the other claiming that such demands amount to government supremacy – even tyranny.
Miami Dade Schools, the fourth largest district in the country with 340,000 students, began classes on Monday with a strict mask requirement. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the district would wear any state punishment as a “badge of honor”.
“I know it (wearing masks) is an inconvenience, but a necessity given the volatility of the transmission of COVID-19,” said Carvalho.
The largest school district in Florida that hasn’t imposed a strict mask policy is Orange County, where parents and teachers protested outside district headquarters Monday, demanding that Superintendent Barbara Jenkins and the board of directors make masking mandatory.
Sarasota County introduced its new mask requirement on Monday. Masks were optional for the first two weeks of class, but outbreaks across the district led school authorities to issue a strict mandate. Only students who present a medical certificate are excused, an opt-out that is mirrored by other districts with mask compulsory.
“I found it difficult to wear a mask. I know a lot of my friends have that too, ”Mya Mamazza, an 11th grade, told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Monday outside of school. “I have asthma so it’s really hard for me.”
She would like the district to offer online courses when a mask is required so she doesn’t have to wear one.
This hearing is expected to be completed by Wednesday. It’s not immediately clear when Cooper will decide, but the judge has said he prefers to rule matters from the bank – and time is of the essence.
“I want everyone to have enough time, but I think we have to act as soon as possible,” he said.
Spencer reported from Fort Lauderdale.