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DeSantis' school mask mandate ban is unlawful, Florida judge rules

Local school boards have the right to set their own policies as long as they're "narrowly tailored," the judge said Friday.

A Florida judge on Friday knocked down the state's order banning local school boards from implementing mask mandates, saying the sweeping action from Tallahassee doesn't "pass constitutional muster."

Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper's decision followed a four-day trial, which was held online as the state struggles to contain the spread of Covid-19.

School districts have the right to set policies, like mask mandates, as long as they have “compelling state interest” and have a “narrowly tailored” plan of action, according to Cooper.

The judge made clear that he was not ruling against Gov. Ron DeSantis, but taking action to bar state agencies from enforcing the governor's blanket order against local mask mandates, which tramples on Florida’s separation of powers statutes.

“The actions of the defendants [DeSantis] do not pass constitutional muster,” Cooper said. “They seek to deprive the school boards in advance.”

Still, Friday's ruling was a blow to the Republican governor and his education commissioner, who have threatened to withhold funding from school districts that went against the ban.

Jared Ochs, director of communications for the state's Department of Education, said the administration is "immensely disappointed" by Cooper's ruling.

"This decision conflicts with basic and established rights of parents to make private health care and education decisions for children," Ochs said in a statement. "We will continue to fight to make sure every child has access to education. We are committed to the fundamental rights of parents and will push forward on appeal to ensure that this foundation of democracy is upheld."

The governor's office attacked Cooper, saying his "ruling was made with incoherent justifications, not based in science and facts – frankly not even remotely focused on the merits of the case presented."

"It’s not surprising that Judge Cooper would rule against parent’s rights and their ability to make the best educational and medical decisions for their family, but instead rule in favor of elected politicians," Taryn Fenske, DeSantis' communications director, said in a statement.

The state plans to appeal.

"We will continue to defend the law and parent’s rights in Florida, and will immediately appeal the ruling to the First District Court of Appeals, where we are confident we will prevail on the merits of the case," Fenske added.

In July, DeSantis barred local school districts from requiring students to wear masks even as the nation, and especially the state of Florida, fights a resurgence of the coronavirus.

Opponents have said DeSantis' actions endanger children by not letting local officials follow guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends that children be masked at school.

The governor's team argued that parents should have the final say on masks and that there's no clear evidence masks prevent Covid-19 spread.

In his ruling against the sweeping state policy, Cooper said public schools regularly enforce mandates much more intrusive than just face masks.

The judge recalled how he couldn’t immediately enter Florida State University in 1968 because he hadn’t yet been vaccinated against smallpox.

He even remembered the name of the doctor who administered the shot and where the inoculation happened, which allowed him to attend college.

"Schools can adopt policy dealing with health and education," Cooper said. "And to the extent they may affect a parent's right to control their children's education or health, then it’s incumbent on the school board, if challenged in that policy, to demonstrate its reasonableness."

The judge asked both sides to craft a proposed order by Monday, based on his findings, that he'd use to issue a final ruling.