Court cites Florida districts ‘challenge’ over school masks


TALLAHASSEE – An appeals court reported on Friday it believed school officials in Alachua and Duval counties violated state law by forcing students to wear masks during the COVID-19 pandemic and ordered the lower courts to deal with the matter expeditiously.

A panel of three judges from the 1st District Court of Appeal did not decide a lawsuit that sought to force the two school districts to allow parents to remove children from mask requirements during the COVID pandemic -19. But in a seven-page order, he said the districts have been “remarkably open in their challenge” to the state.

“The courts will not engage in ongoing political battles,” said the order, drafted by Judge Robert Long and joined by Justices Brad Thomas and Harvey Jay. “But neither will we refuse to exercise our constitutional authority to enforce respect for the law. Sponsors (school districts) cannot come between parents and their legitimate right to make decisions on behalf of their children.

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Instead of the more usual process of starting with a circuit court, the plaintiffs took the case to the Tallahassee Court of Appeal. They asked for what is called a “writ of mandamus” to force school districts to comply with state law and a Department of Health rule that says parents should be able to exclude children from the requirements. in terms of masks.

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The appeals court on Friday highlighted an issue in the case as to whether the plaintiffs are parents of children affected by the Alachua and Duval mask policies. He said such a “question of fact” must be resolved in a circuit court.

“We call on the chief judge of each circuit to assign the petition to a circuit judge and that the appointed circuit judges ensure an immediate hearing and a speedy decision on the merits of the petition,” the order said on Friday. .

The Department of Health rule implemented a July 30 executive order from Governor Ron DeSantis to prevent school districts from requiring students to wear masks. But the districts of Alachua and Duval were among several in the state that required parents to provide medical documents before students could be exempted from mask requirements.

The Duval County District, however, announced on Friday that it would drop the requirement for medical documentation. The district website cited a reduced COVID-19 transmission rate in the county.

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“Starting next week, parents and guardians — at their sole discretion — may remove their children from the requirement to cover the face without any documentation,” the Duval Schools website. noted. “All they have to do is complete the online opt-out form in… the district’s online student information system.”

Some other districts have also dropped medical documentation requirements as COVID-19 transmission rates have improved. As of Friday night, it was not immediately clear how the Duval County move might affect the trial.

Six school boards, including Duval and Alachua Boards, also challenged the Health Department’s rule in the state’s Administrative Hearings Division. An administrative judge is expected to rule on the case by the end of next week.

In a document filed with the appeals court, Alachua County attorneys wrote that the district’s policies followed laws and guidelines from the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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“In fact, the respondents (the Alachua County School Board and Superintendent Carlee Simon) have legal responsibility for the management and operation of schools in their district,” the October 13 document reads. “If this duty has any meaning, it certainly includes the obligation to ensure a safe environment for the children in their care. To fulfill this essential obligation, Respondents have been in constant communication with a team of experts and medical advisers, following CDC data as well as guidelines, and in no way developed their own laws and rules. “

But the appeals court adopted a different opinion on Friday.

“The respondents (officials of Alachua and Duval schools) admit their policies do not comply with the rule,” the order said. “They don’t claim the rule is unclear. They don’t claim the rule doesn’t apply to them. They don’t claim they are confused by the rule. They don’t claim they tried to comply with the rule. Instead, they claim they are challenging the rule in an administrative proceeding. And they explain that, rather than following Florida law, they are following their favorite policy recommendations. “


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