Fight over Florida school mask mandates gets first day in court

FILE - In this Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, file photo, students, some wearing protective masks, arrive for the first day of school at Sessums Elementary School in Riverview, Fla. The on-again, off-again ban imposed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to prevent mandating masks for Florida school students is back in force. The 1st District Court of Appeal ruled Friday, Sept. 10, that a Tallahassee judge should not have lifted an automatic stay two days ago that halted enforcement of the mask mandate ban. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File) (Chris O'Meara, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Six Florida school districts challenging the Department of Health’s rule on masks in schools appeared before an administrative law judge Thursday morning.

At issue is whether parents alone can opt their kids out of wearing a mask.

Also of concern is what’s required if a student has been exposed to COVID-19 but is showing no symptoms.

The six school districts argue they know what’s best for the students in their communities and the state isn’t letting them do what they were elected to do.

Rocky Hanna is the Superintendent in Leon County.

“If we have a student that is exposed, a potential exposure, for them to wear a mask. They can stay in school, but wear a mask in what otherwise would have been the quarantine period. But even for them, that’s not allowed for and we’re out of compliance,” said Hanna.

The mask divide was evident in the hearing room.

Virtually everyone on the school boards’ side was masked.

Not so on the state’s side.

The schools argue the state exceeded its authority because the DOH doesn’t regulate schools.

“What this rule really does is prevent school districts from requiring masks with the opt-out at the parent’s sole discretion. And the question is, does that control COVID?” said Jamie Cole, an attorney representing the school boards.

But the DOH, with a giant copy of the rule on display, said the mask rule is specifically in their authority to keep people safe.

“You can have a masking policy, but we’re gonna place a limit on that. The limit is you have to allow a parental opt-out,” said the state’s attorney Jason Gonzales.

Leon County School Board member Roseanne Woods’ salary depends on the outcome.

“We enacted these rules to protect children, and I feel that’s my constitutional duty,” said Woods.

With COVID-19 cases declining, the schools argued the hearing is as much about a future pandemic as the one we’re currently experiencing.

“The wearing of this mask may protect me, but more importantly it protects all of you. And that’s where to me the rights of one child interfere with the rights of all the other children,” said Hanna.

The hearing concludes Friday.

No word yet on whether the decision will be immediate.

Both sides are likely to appeal.

The case would then go to the First District Court of Appeal, which often sides with the state on school issues.

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