District challenge to Florida's mask mandate ban begins

'We're simply asking for autonomy,' Leon Superintendent Rocky Hanna says
Posted at 11:15 AM, Oct 22, 2021

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The next challenge to Florida's mask mandate ban in public schools is now underway.

Judge Brian Newman began hearing arguments Thursday as six Florida school boards, Alachua, Broward, Duval, Leon, Miami-Dade and Orange counties, attempt to overturn the ban's foundational Department of Health rule in administrative court.

The regulation, backed by the governor, requires districts to offer parental opt outs or face a financial penalty.

Attorneys for the schools said health officials exceeded their authority and didn't follow proper protocol while crafting it.

Rosanne Wood, Leon County School Board
Rosanne Wood of the Leon County School Board speaks about the fight to overturn that state health department's rule regarding masks.

The plaintiffs' attorney Jamie Cole said the regulation didn't meet the criteria for an emergency rule, noting COVID-19 cases were in decline at the time.

"There was just no immediate danger at that point," Cole said. "The process they used was really no process. There was no public notice. No hearing. Nothing at all."

Leon Superintendent Rocky Hanna was among the plaintiffs in attendance. Outside the courtroom, he said the case boiled down to local control.

"We're simply asking for autonomy," he said. "Home rule, local control to do what's best for the citizens and the community here in Tallahassee and Leon County — to keep our children safe and keep our schools open."

Judge Brian Newman
Judge Brian Newman is presiding over the case.

Attorneys for the state maintain the rule is fair and valid.

Defense attorney Jason Gonzalez told the judge there was an "immediate danger" and health officials couldn't wait 40 to 60 days for regular rulemaking.

He also noted the health department has discretion when it comes to mitigation.

"They drew the line with parents having the ability to opt out," Gonzalez said. "The parents know their child the best. The parents may know things that the school districts testified they’re not even allowed to find out."

Testimony will likely wrap Friday.

Newman could rule from the bench but said he wants time to review all the evidence before making a decision.

The district challenge is just one of several legal efforts to remove the mask mandate ban.

A Leon Circuit Court judge recently ruled it unconstitutional, but the state is appealing. That process is still ongoing and the ban remains in effect in the meantime.