Florida’s Ban on School Mask Mandates Can Be Enforced for Now, Court Rules

The ruling reverses the decision of a lower court judge who had put the ban on hold and allowed the state’s largest school districts to require face coverings amid a deadly coronavirus surge.

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An appeals court allows Florida to continue its ban on school mask mandates for now.

The first day of school, last month, at iPrep Academy in Miami.Credit…Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Sept. 10, 2021, 3:07 p.m. ET

Florida’s ban on school mask mandates can remain in place while a legal challenge makes its way through the courts, an appeals court ruled on Friday. It reverses the decision of a lower court judge who had put the ban on hold and allowed the state’s largest school districts to require face coverings amid a deadly coronavirus surge.

The ruling in favor of Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, and other state officials by the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee means the Florida Department of Education can continue to punish local school officials who impose mask mandates without an opt-out provision available for parents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised everyone in schools wear masks, regardless of vaccination status.

“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,” Mr. DeSantis said on Wednesday.

The state has begun to withhold funds equivalent to school board members’ monthly salaries from two districts — Alachua in Gainesville and Broward in Fort Lauderdale — that were the first to put strict mask mandates in place. In all, 13 of Florida’s 67 districts have imposed similar mandates, in defiance of the state.

The Biden administration has pledged to restore funding to any district that is penalized for implementing C.D.C. mitigation recommendations, such as universal masking. The federal Education Department has already informed districts that they can use federal relief funds to plug gaps, and announced Thursday a new grant program that would provide an additional pot of funding to make districts whole if they’re financially penalized.

In a brief ruling, three judges on the more conservative appellate court wrote on Friday that they have “serious doubts” about basic matters in the case, including whether the parents who filed the initial lawsuit had legal standing to do so.

“These doubts significantly militate against the likelihood of the appellees’ ultimate success in this appeal,” they wrote.

Late last month, after a four-day trial, Judge John C. Cooper of the state’s Second Judicial Circuit had ruled in favor of the parents, saying that school districts’ mask mandates were narrow, reasonable and necessary to protect a compelling state interest — namely, the safety of students and staff. The state immediately sought a stay, or hold, on the ruling, pending its appeal.

On Wednesday, Judge Cooper rejected the stay, briefly allowing the mask mandates to remain in place until Friday’s appellate court ruling.

Erica L. Green contributed reporting.

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