Florida school mask mandate battle re-focuses on health department opt-out rule

Governor Ron DeSantis' ban on strict mask mandates in Florida schools remains in play after two recent court rulings. Now, the attention turns to a rule issued by the Department of Health that stems from the governor's order.

School boards and groups like the NAACP are challenging the rule that requires parents to be able to opt-out their kids from mandates imposed by the district. The health department has filed a motion to have those challenges dismissed.

On Monday afternoon, a Tallahassee judge will consider the health department's request during a hearing. The plaintiffs argue the department overstepped its authority when it issued the emergency rule. 

If the judge allows their challenges to move forward, a full hearing will begin on Friday.

PREVIOUS: Federal judge refuses to block DeSantis mask order

Last week, a federal judge rejected a request by parents of disabled children to block DeSantis’ efforts to prevent school districts from requiring students to wear masks during the pandemic.

Judge K. Michael Moore issued a 34-page ruling that denied a request for a preliminary injunction against an executive order that DeSantis issued July 30. The executive order led to the Florida Department of Health issuing a rule that required districts to allow parents to opt-out of any student mask mandates.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Miami, contends that the executive order violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws designed to protect the rights of students with disabilities.

But Moore wrote Wednesday that the plaintiffs should have pursued administrative claims before the lawsuit. Such administrative claims, he wrote, are required under a federal law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.

In a separate lawsuit, a Florida appeals court put on hold a circuit judge’s ruling that said Gov. DeSantis overstepped his constitutional authority in a July 30 executive order aimed at preventing school mask mandates. A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal reinstated a stay of the ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper, clearing the way for the state to try to block school districts from requiring students to wear masks.

PREVIOUS: Florida appeals court reinstates stay, allows school mask-mandate ban to continue

The decision was a blow to a group of parents who filed the lawsuit and argued that children would be harmed by DeSantis’ executive order.

The order was part of a flurry of legal activity after a Sept. 2 ruling by Cooper against DeSantis, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the Department of Education and the State Board of Education. The DeSantis administration appealed that ruling, a step that led to an automatic stay while the case was pending at the appeals court.

PREVIOUS: Florida judge rules against governor, allowing school districts to require masks without being penalized

But the parents’ attorneys asked Cooper to vacate the stay, a request that he granted. The DeSantis administration quickly returned to the appeals court with an emergency motion to reinstate the stay --- which led to the appeal's court order.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report