(The Center Square) – Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper heard closing arguments Thursday in the fourth day of a scheduled three-day trial that will determine whether parents or district officials make COVID- 19 rules in Florida schools.
Cooper has vowed to issue a ruling no later than Friday, hinting it could be posted Thursday.
No matter which way Cooper rules, Gov. Ron DeSantis expects the loser to appeal. “Good,” he said Thursday. “I think we obviously need to have this stuff crystallized.”
DeSantis said Florida will “obviously” appeal any ruling that dilutes House Bill 1059, the ‘Parents’ Bill of Rights Act,’ adopted by lawmakers during their 2021 session. HB 1059 requires districts and agencies cede to parents in decisions regarding their children.
“We feel the Legislature really made a big statement with their parental bill of rights,” DeSantis said in Orlando with state Attorney General Ashley Moody by his side.
Moody said the growing number of school boards adopting mask mandates despite HB 1059 and DeSantis’ June 30 executive order are flouting state law and will be held accountable.
“You cannot flagrantly disregard statutes and orders in violation of law,” Moody said. “It’s pretty clear. It’s a tenet of what our country is built on.”
Cooper is deliberating a lawsuit filed by parents from seven counties asking him to nix DeSantis’ executive order and allow school boards to manage the pandemic in local schools.
Plaintiffs, nine couples and individual parents with children under age-12 who attend school in Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach and Pinellas counties, maintain DeSantis’ order violates districts’ authority under the state constitution, denies due process and is “arbitrary and capricious.”
The state contends DeSantis’ order and HB 1059 meet constitutional criteria and are the laws of the land.
On Aug. 17, the state’s Board of Education (BOE) agreed the Alachua and Broward school boards violated DeSantis’ order and HB 1059 by imposing mask mandates and should be docked state funding the equivalent of school board/administrator salaries. In addition, some officials could be removed from posts.
However, emboldened by support from President Joe Biden’s administration, the number of school boards defying DeSantis since the trial began has doubled with the Orange County School Board Tuesday becoming the 10th.
As of Thursday, nearly half of Florida’s 2.9 million K-12 students were attending schools that require masks despite the governor’s and BOE’s threats.
On Wednesday, DeSantis said districts in violation of the order will face consequences. On Thursday, he specified that only the “guilty” will be targeted with sanctions and, potentially, removal from office.
“There’ll be no penalties applied to schoolchildren or teachers or any of that,” DeSantis said. “In fact, if teachers just follow state law, they’ll be protected for doing that.”
The Florida Education Association (FEA), however, in its updated Safe Schools Report posted Wednesday, maintains “if teachers just follow state law” they may be protected legally, but are at greater risk to the disease by the governor’s policies – opening, potentially, another legal front in challenging the mask mandate ban.
According to the FEA, the state’s largest teachers union, 34 “active educators” have died from COVID-19 since July 2021, five Florida children have died and 66,790 Florida children under 16 have tested positive since Aug. 1.
As of Wednesday, the FEA said 37,008 Florida PreK-12 students and staff across the state’s 67 county school districts have tested positive and been quarantined.
The FEA said the actual number could “significantly higher” because “roughly two-thirds of school districts do not have publicly available dashboards” that chart infections in schools.