TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A hearing in a high-profile lawsuit challenging Gov. Ron DeSantis' executive order aimed at preventing local school boards from imposing student mask mandates is ready for closing arguments on Thursday.
Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper said he expects to rule in the case on Friday morning. Cooper had initially expected the hearing to end Wednesday.
"Whatever the result in this case, I think we could suggest to the (state) Supreme Court if they want to know how to try a case really fast, that this might be a good case study on how to do it," Cooper said.
A group of parents filed the lawsuit challenging DeSantis’ July 30 order, alleging that it violates a section of the state Constitution that requires providing a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high-quality system" of public schools.
Several of the parents testified this week that their children are too young to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and masks are their only line of defense against transmission of the disease.
On Wednesday, attorneys representing DeSantis called on parents who oppose mandates to try to reinforce the governor’s position that parents should decide whether children wear masks.
State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the State Board of Education and the state Department of Education also are named as defendants in the lawsuit.
Ashley Benton, who has four children in the Leon County school system, testified Wednesday that her fifth-grade daughter has a rare neurological condition that presents as a speech disorder in younger children.
"For her with the mask, it’s extremely overwhelming. When there were mask mandates here in Leon County, we did try to abide by them, and I just couldn’t take her anywhere," Benton said.
Benton said her daughter’s pediatrician declined to sign a doctor’s note for Benton to opt-out of a mask requirement imposed by Leon County schools.
Jacob Oliva, a top-ranking official with the Department of Education, also testified that the state observed little difference last year in schools that required masks and those that didn’t have mandates.
"We did kind of a cross-reference of districts of similar size, to see what positive or not positive cases would look like with districts that had masks or didn’t have masking policies, and it was statistically really insignificant," Oliva said.
Attorneys representing the plaintiffs, however, argued throughout the hearing that a surge of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations caused by the delta variant --- including in children --- has brought an urgent need for mask mandates in schools.
Stanford University professor of medicine Jay Bhattacharya, a witness the state has relied on to dispute the efficacy of wearing masks, was cross-examined Wednesday by the plaintiffs’ attorneys.
Attorney Charles Gallagher asked Bhattacharya under what, if any, circumstances he would recommend that students wear masks in schools. Bhattacharya, who said that he does research full-time and has not treated COVID-19 patients, maintained that he has not seen convincing evidence that masks are effective.
"If there’s evidence that it’s very effective in stopping disease spread, solid, high-quality evidence … if there’s evidence that children can effectively wear masks with minimal cost to them all day long, then yeah, I would recommend it," Bhattacharya said.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers also called on pediatric pulmonologist Tony Kriseman to rebut Bhattacharya’s arguments.
"We have a responsibility to do whatever we can, so that we can lower the morbidity, mortality rates that we’re seeing in adults and in children. And it’s no longer an abstract to me. Last year, during the pandemic, it was somewhat abstract because we were working hard, we were doing everything we could, but we didn’t have the deluge of patients. Now I am being asked to tell patients, please don’t come to my emergency room, you’re not going to get seen there for six hours," Kriseman said.
Ten school districts as of Wednesday had enacted mask requirements that bucked DeSantis’ order and a resulting Department of Health rule that says parents must be able to opt-out of mandates.
On Tuesday, the school boards in Orange and Indian River counties joined eight other counties in imposing mask requirements that allow exceptions only for parents who present doctors’ notes.
Counties with such mask requirements now represent about half of Florida’s 2.8 million students.
DeSantis on Wednesday said the districts are breaking a new state law known as the "Parents’ Bill of Rights" that deals with parents’ right to control educational and health decisions for their children.
"Those school districts are violating state law, and they are overriding what the parents’ judgment is on this," DeSantis said.
The school board in Pinellas County voted 4-3 against scheduling an emergency meeting later this week to consider a 90-day student mask mandate. Dozens of people spoke on both sides of the mask issue before the vote.
Pinellas board member Bill Dudley cited several studies indicating little difference in coronavirus infection spread among children whether they wore masks or not.
"If it doesn’t make a difference, why do it?" Dudley said. "We have a mandate, and that mandate is choice. Do what you think is best for your child."
As districts mull mask mandates, at least two schools have been shut down this week because of "the number of students needing to quarantine as a result" of COVID-19 infections. Baldwin Middle-High School and Duncan U. Fletcher Middle School, both in Duval County, closed and shifted to online instruction for seven days.
The Associated Press and FOX 13 News contributed to this report.