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Florida appeals court rules in favor of DeSantis, allowing his ban on mask mandates in schools to stand

<i>Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images</i><br/>Lawyers for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis filed an emergency appeal after a judge ruled on Wednesday that the state of Florida must stop their enforcement of a mask ban.
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett
Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
Lawyers for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis filed an emergency appeal after a judge ruled on Wednesday that the state of Florida must stop their enforcement of a mask ban.

By Melissa Alonso, CNN

Florida’s 1st District Court on Friday reinstated a stay on mask mandates in schools, blocking local school requirements for now, court documents show.

Lawyers for Gov. Ron DeSantis filed the emergency appeal after a judge ruled on Wednesday that the state must stop its enforcement of a mask ban.

The latest court ruling comes amid a showdown between the state and some local school districts that have insisted on requiring students to wear masks as Covid-19 infections surge.

The civil rights enforcement arm of the US Department of Education added to the issue Friday, saying it is opening an investigation into whether the Florida education department “may be preventing school districts in the state from considering or meeting the needs of students with disabilities” with the mask mandate ban.

The Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) sent a letter to Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran Friday, detailing how “OCR is concerned that Florida’s policy requiring public schools and school districts to allow parents to opt their children out of mask mandates may be preventing schools in Florida from meeting their legal obligations not to discriminate based on disability and from providing an equal educational opportunity to students with disabilities who are at heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19.”

The federal department last month said it had sent letters to state school officials in five states — Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah — notifying them of investigations into whether their state mask restrictions prevented students with disabilities from “safely returning to in-person education, in violation of Federal law.”

At the time, OCR said it had not opened investigations in Florida and other states “because those states’ bans on universal indoor masking are not currently being enforced as a result of court orders or other state actions.”

On August 27, Second Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled against DeSantis, allowing Florida schools to institute mask mandates while the case was appealed at a higher level.

Cooper ruled DeSantis had overreached when he issued an executive order in late July directing the Florida Department of Education and the Florida Department of Health to issue emergency rules giving parents a choice on whether their children should wear masks in class.

The state threatened to withhold funding from districts that violated the order and required masks, but 13 Florida school districts have implemented mask mandates without a parental opt-out, in defiance of the governor.

DeSantis tweeted he was not surprised by Friday’s ruling.

“The 1st DCA has restored the right of parents to make the best decisions for their children. I will continue to fight for parents’ rights,” he added.

School districts react

Some school districts with mask mandates, though, said Friday that the appeals court decision wouldn’t immediately change their policies.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Florida’s largest school district, will continue to enforce a mask mandate as the appeals process runs its course, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told CNN’s Erin Burnett Friday, “for one simple reason — it works,” he said.

Broward County Public Schools, the second-largest district, will continue to implement its current policy, Interim Superintendent Dr. Vickie Cartwright said in a press conference Friday. The district has lost four staff members — two teachers and two paraprofessionals — to Covid-19.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic and we’ve got to respond accordingly to what’s in the best interest of our students related to the pandemic,” Cartwright said. “We look forward to the future ruling from the District Court of Appeals.”

Orange County Public Schools, which includes Orlando, will “continue to monitor the court proceedings,” spokesperson Michael Ollendorff said.

“Our current policy remains in place through October 30,” Ollendorff said.

Leon County Public Schools, which includes Tallahassee, won’t comment on the ruling and “will continue to mandate masks” through eighth grade, according to spokesperson Chris Petley.

There will also be no changes in the mask policy at Lee County Public Schools, according to spokesperson Rob Spicker, who said “the mask requirement remains in place.” Lee County includes Fort Myers.

Brevard Public School System spokesperson Katherine Allen said the system had “not been notified of any changes to our current policy at this time.”

“The decision is disappointing, but we understood from the beginning that the legal battle over masks in schools would take time and not every decision would be favorable,” said Alachua County Public Schools spokesperson Jackie Johnson.

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CNN’s Liz Stark, Rebekah Riess and Amy Simonson contrbuted to this report.

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