Florida Court of Appeals Reinstates State School Mask Mandate Ban in Latest Flip-Flop

Florida's Court of Appeals reinstated Governor Ron DeSantis' ban preventing schools from mandating face masks for students in the latest flip-flop in the legal battle between the governor and some parents, the Associated Press reported.

A judge in Tallahassee previously ruled against the mask mandate, and lifted a stay on his order halting the enforcement of the ban. The 1st District Court of Appeals ruled that the judge should not have lifted the stay, effectively putting the ban back into effect.

Charles Gallagher, an attorney representing parents that are challenging DeSantis' ban, said he is "disappointed" by the latest decision.

"With a stay in place, students, parents and teachers are back in harm's way," Gallagher said in a tweet.

The legal battle came from a lawsuit filed by parents represented by Gallagher and other lawyers arguing against DeSantis' ban. They contend he lacks the authority to ban school boards from imposing mask mandates.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Gov. Ron DeSantis
Florida's Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Governor Ron DeSantis preventing school districts from issuing mask mandates on September 10, 2021. Above, DeSantis speaks during a press conference at the Assault Brigade 2506 Honorary Museum on August 5, 2021, in Hialeah, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The state could resume its efforts to impose financial penalties on the 13 school boards currently defying the mask mandate ban. Those have included docking salaries of local school board members who voted to impose student mask mandates.

The U.S. Department of Education announced Thursday it has begun a new grant program to provide funding for school districts in Florida and elsewhere that lose money for implementing anti-coronavirus practices such as mandatory masks.

DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw said in a tweet that the decision means "the rule requiring ALL Florida school districts to protect parents' rights to make choices about masking kids is BACK in effect!"

DeSantis has argued that the new Parents Bill of Rights law reserves solely for parents the authority to determine whether their children should wear a mask to school. School districts with mandatory mask rules allow an opt-out only for medical reasons, not parental discretion.

Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper agreed with Gallagher and other lawyers in an August 27 order, then on Wednesday lifted a stay that had blocked his ruling from taking effect. The appeals court now has put that stay back in place as the governor seeks a ruling making his mask mandate ban permanent.

The appeals judges noted that a stay is presumed when a public officer or agency seeks appellate review of a judicial order.

"We have serious doubts about standing, jurisdiction, and other threshold matters," the appeals judges wrote in a one-page decision. "Given the presumption against vacating the automatic stay, the stay should have been left in place pending appellate review."

In his previous order, Cooper said the overwhelming evidence is that wearing masks provides some protection for children in crowded school settings, particularly those under 12 who are not currently eligible for vaccination. The court battle comes as Florida copes with the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus that has overrun hospitals across the state.

On the Parents Bill of Rights, Cooper said his previous order follows the law that reserves health and education decisions regarding children to parents unless a government entity such as a school board can show their broader action is reasonable and narrowly tailored to the issue at hand.

The next stage of the legal fight will test whether Cooper's conclusions are correct.

Florida School Children
The ban imposed by Governor Ron DeSantis to prevent mandating masks for Florida school students is back on. Above, students, some wearing protective masks, arrive for the first day of school at Sessums Elementary School on August 10, 2021, in Riverview, Florida. Chris O'Meara, File/AP Photo