TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A judge is now mulling the fate of Florida's mask mandate ban for public schools. It comes after yet another legal challenge to the controversial policy, this time in administrative court.
After a quick round of preparation and a two-day hearing, Judge Brian Newman said Friday he would have a final order ready by Nov. 5.
"I don't think I've ever done it quicker than 30 days," Newman told attorneys. "You guys had less than half that time and you both managed to put on very good cases."
Six Florida school boards (Alachua, Broward, Duval, Leon, Miami-Dade and Orange) are trying to overturn the mask mandate ban's key Florida Department of Health rule. It requires parental opt-outs under the threat of financial penalty.
The schools allege the Florida Department of Health issued the regulation improperly as an emergency rule and that officials exceeded their authority.
"Well, it's in the hands of the judge," Leon County Superintendent Rocky Hanna, a plaintiff in the case, said. "Hopefully, he'll stay impartial and look at the facts and the law and see the merits of both sides of the case. At the end of the day, it comes down to state control vs. local control."
Hanna is the chief administrator for the capital school district. As the summer surge of the delta variant has waned, he and the school board have slowly brought the district closer to compliance with state rules. As COVID-19 cases continue to drop, Hanna said the fight has become more about setting legal precedent.
"This case will set precedent for other cases in the years to come," he said. "We're all about parental rights and parents should absolutely have rights, but school districts need rights too, because we're responsible constitutional officers to protect all children from harm."
Attorneys for the state declined to comment. They have argued the rule is valid and COVID-19 created an "immediate danger" necessitating the quickly ordered emergency rule. The governor has continued to back it as protecting the rights of parents, ensuring they have the final say on masking.
"If these masks were really working, you'd be able to point to a bunch of school districts that have seen explosions in cases," Gov. Ron DeSantis said Wednesday. "Let the parents make these decisions. If one wants their kid to do, fine. If not, no one is saying you can't."
Either side can appeal the judge's forthcoming order. If granted, the issue heads to a district court. For now, though, attorneys said appeal was too soon to consider.
"We're certainly hoping that the judge is going to rule in our favor," Jamie Cole, an attorney for the schools, said. "And the question will be whether the Department of Health should appeal the rule."
Meanwhile, the legislature is preparing to return to Tallahassee for a special session in November. At the request of the Republican governor, lawmakers are expected to address school masking. DeSantis has said he wants more protections to hold defiant districts accountable.