TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — A Florida judge ruled in favor of parents suing Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Florida Department of Education, the Florida Board of Education and Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran over the state’s policies that effectively banned school districts from enforcing mandatory mask policies. Judge John Cooper’s ruling says the state didn’t have the legal authority to prevent any and all mask mandates.

The ruling blocks the state from banning mask mandates in Florida school districts, but didn’t rule in favor of the plaintiffs on all of the issues they brought to court.

Judge Cooper granted relief to parents on two counts from their complaint, finding the governor and the Department of Education exceeded their legal authority by blocking mask policies wholesale.

“The actions of the defendants do not pass constitutional muster, because they seek to deprive the school boards in advance, of their rights,” Cooper said. “The law does not require the school board to get permission in advance, and only provides that the school board be able to be challenged on its reasonableness.”

The ruling ending a week-long trial of acrimonious cross-examination of public health experts and heartfelt pleadings from mothers on both sides of the mask issue. However, the order will not take effect until the written order comes next week.

Still, what this means for the Florida school districts that are already facing state sanctions is not yet clear, leaving their financial futures uncertain.

When weighing his decision, Cooper compared the previous version of COVID-19 that swept Florida in 2020 to the crisis of the delta variant in 2021, as well as the changes made to how the state has responded to the pandemic since its start.

“The increasing COVID crisis in Florida has resulted from less than complete vaccination of the population of Florida and the dominance of a COVID virus variant referred to as the delta variant. the delta variant has a much higher viral load and is more contagious than the form of COVID present in Florida from 2020 to about May or so of this year,” Cooper said. “The combination of lack of vaccination, decrease in social distancing, and the delta variant has resulted in a dramatically increased spread of COVID in Florida over the past few months.”

With that in mind, Cooper turned to the Parents’ Bill of Rights and its provisions, aimed at protecting parental rights from infringement regarding how their children’s health, mental health, and education are concerned.

Cooper questioned the evidence and expertise brought by the defense, who argued that CDC guidance was invalid and imposed burdens on the state’s students.

During a roundtable held earlier in the year by the governor on potential mask policies, Cooper said “The governor stated, gave his opinion, that his confidence in some medical leadership had been shattered, he said they appeared to be delighted to impose unspeakable burdens on children. other than the fact that it was said at that conference, no evidence has been produced to support that statement.”

An additional witness for the defendants, a psychiatrist, told the court that masking is child abuse, and that there was no evidence that masking protects against COVID-19, a line DeSantis has also taken up in recent weeks. To the contrary, Cooper said there was “a lot of evidence presented” in court, including studies by the CDC and others.

Getting into the legal arguments, Cooper’s decision focused primarily on the state’s enforcement of the Parents’ Bill of Rights, a law passed this year that became central to the case as it proceeded, and how its provisions were being enforced.

“While subject to the parents bill of rights, the setting of local policies substantially remains a local function,” Cooper said. “This bill was passed this year by the Florida legislature, I believe that the Governor did sign the bill, and it took effect July 1, 2021, about 26 days before the roundtable, and about 29 days before the executive order.”

Cooper says the part of the new law at issue here is the portion stating that no governmental units, political subdivisions, or other institutions may infringe upon the fundamental rights of parents for the care and upbringing of their child. However, the judge said that the reading of the Parents’ Bill of Rights by the defendants stopped there. Instead, he said it was his job to enforce the whole of the law, not just part of it.

Under the Parents’ Bill of Rights, Cooper says the law doesn’t authorize the governor or state board to tell local school boards whether or not they can adopt blanket policies, but it does say that the policy has to be reasonable, must be narrowly drawn, and must be able to be accomplished by other means.

As it relates to state boards adopting mask mandates, Cooper says there’s no provision in the Parents’ Bill of Rights that prevents a school board from doing so. He says the defendants do not have the right to a blanket prohibition or ban on mask mandates or policies, and do not have that authority unless they give boards their due process rights, so long as the policies are narrowly tailored and are reasonable and meets legal requirements in the Florida statutes.

Cooper says his analysis is based on counties having individual circumstances, rather than a statewide blanket situation.

“If you want to put it in a sentence, I am enforcing the bill the governor has signed, and must enforce all of its provisions, not some of its provisions,” Cooper said. He said the governor lacked the legal authority to enforce the order, as written.

At the end of today’s verbal order, Cooper acknowledged that there would likely be appeals from both sides of the case, and the larger mask policy debate unfolding across the state. Soon after the decision was handed down, officials on both sides of the argument weighed in.

Responding to the ruling by Judge Cooper, the Governor’s Office issued the following response:

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. This ruling was made with incoherent justifications, not based in science and facts – frankly not even remotely focused on the merits of the case presented. We are used to the Leon County Circuit Court not following the law and getting reversed on appeal, which is exactly what happened last year in the school reopening case. 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.

Statement reacting to Judge’s ruling from Governor Ron DeSantis

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Nikki Fried, the current state Agricultural Commissioner and U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, also responded to Cooper’s decision:

“Today, Florida’s judicial branch affirmed what we have known to be true: Governor DeSantis’ ban on masks in schools is not only a dangerous government overreach that puts children’s lives at risk, but it also violates Florida law. This ruling is a win for common sense, for children’s safety, and for all the families and school officials who have been fighting to protect their loved ones, students, and staff. Governor, it’s past time to walk away from this ridiculous, politically motivated fight and focus instead on working together to protect the people of Florida by encouraging scientifically-proven vaccines and mask guidelines. I’m proud to continue to stand with the brave local officials and families who have been fighting for what the court today affirmed is right.

Statement from Nikki Fried, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture & Consumer Services

Today’s ruling is a major victory in our fight against Governor DeSantis’ tyranny and reckless leadership. Under his watch, classes and schools have been forced to close, over 3 million Floridians have gotten sick with COVID-19, our hard fought economic comeback has been threatened, and our teachers, students, and parents have become collateral damage in his political crusade. Governor DeSantis has made it clear that he wants to put politics over keeping schools open and keeping our economy strong. But today’s ruling makes clear that he’s overstepped his authority.  This verdict will help communities do what medical experts know is critical to keeping our schools and economy open, while protecting vulnerable Floridians. While this fight is far from over, we won’t back down when it comes to doing what’s right for all Floridians.

Statement from Charlie Crist, U.S. Representative for Florida, D13

Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order on July 30 effectively preventing school districts from mandating masks, and directing state agencies to “immediately execute rules” to prevent any mandates without an opt-out for parents. The order stated any mask requirements “shall at minimum be in accordance with Florida’s ‘Parents’ Bill of Rights’ and protect parents’ right to make decisions regarding masking of their children in relation to COVID-19.”

Families in several Florida counties, including Hillsborough and Pasco, then sued the governor, Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran, the Florida Department of Education, and the Florida Board of Education.

Cooper issued different rulings on the six counts brought by the plaintiffs:

  • Count 1 — No relief. Plaintiffs sought a declaration from the court that the governor’s executive order and “related actions or threatened actions” violated a state constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1998 that requires the state to provide “a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools.”
  • Count 2 — No relief. Plaintiffs sought a similar declaration from the court as in count one, based on Article 9, Section 4 of the Florida Constitution, which states: “The school board shall operate, control and supervise all free public schools within the school district.”
  • Count 3 — Judge granted relief. Plaintiffs argued the executive order “undermines schools’ safety and makes arbitrary and capricious demands on public schools in violation of the Florida constitution.” Attorneys argued the governor’s executive order was gratuitous and exceeded his authority.
  • Count 4 — Judge granted relief. Plaintiffs argued the Department of Education exceeded its authority and that “the subject matter of public health matters, such as masking in schools, is appropriately within the authority of the Florida Department of Health.”
  • Count 5 — Judge granted motion to dismiss in part. Plaintiffs argued the Department of Health emergency rule implementing the governor’s executive order also violated their rights under the state constitution.
  • Count 6 — Judge granted relief. Request for Emergency Injunctive Relief. Plaintiffs sought to enjoin the governor’s executive order and all related directives from state agencies from going into effect.

This story contains additional reporting by the Associated Press.