Florida School Districts Challenging State's Mask Mandate Ban Could Soon Reach a Dozen

The number of Florida school districts challenging the state's ban on mask mandates may soon reach a dozen as three more school boards announced hearings to discuss mask policies on Tuesday.

School boards in Orange, Pinellas and Monroe counties could join at least eight other districts contending the ban issued by Governor Ron DeSantis, saying stricter policies are needed as more staff and students are sent home due to COVID-19 infections and exposures.

Together the three districts have more than 3,000 students who were unable to return to their classes after positive COVID-19 tests or exposure to the virus.

DeSantis' lawyers have argued in favor of the governor's executive order which gives parents, rather than school districts, the decision over whether the children should wear masks at school.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Students wear masks Florida school
The number of Florida school districts contesting the ban on mask mandates in schools may soon reach a dozen. The new Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Miami, Jim Rigg (behind) dances with students wearing face masks as they attend their first day in school after summer vacation at the St. Lawrence Catholic School in north of Miami, on August 18. Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

The three-day hearing that started Monday before Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper pits pro-mask parents against the DeSantis administration and state education officials who contend that parents, not schools, should choose whether their children cover up in classrooms.

The highly contagious Delta variant led to an acceleration in cases around Florida and record high hospitalizations just as schools prepared to reopen classrooms this month. By mid-August more than 21,000 new cases were being added per day, compared with about 8,500 a month earlier. There were 16,820 people hospitalized in Florida with the disease Tuesday, according to federal government figures, down from a record of more 17,000 last week.

Dr. Mona Mangat, a St. Petersburg physician who specializes in pediatric immunology, testified Tuesday on behalf of the lawsuit plaintiffs that face coverings remain essential in classrooms because children 12 and under aren't yet eligible to get their shots.

"That leaves us with vaccination where we can and masking everybody," Mangat said. "Masking of any sort that you can get your hands on is better than no masking."

Some districts, such as the one that covers Jacksonville area schools, began the semester with a parental opt-out for masks. The board agreed late Monday to adopt a stricter, 90-day mask policy beginning September 7. That's in keeping with recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to wear masks at all times when indoors among groups of people.

State education officials have vowed to financially punish districts that don't comply with the governor's executive order, contending they are violating state law unless they allow parents to opt-out their children for any reason. A lawyer for the defendants—DeSantis, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the state school board and education department—said the order heeds the state constitution and the Parents Bill of Rights law that took effect in July.

Orange County's board has been pressured by pro-mask parents and teachers to follow the federal health guidance. The board in Pinellas County faced calls from a coalition of groups for a 60-day mask mandate. And in the Florida Keys, Monroe County's board also was expected to discuss a mask policy on Tuesday.

Florida school mask mandates
Schools in Miami-Dade County opened Monday with a strict mask mandate to guard against coronavirus infections. Above, Vanessa Rosario greets students outside of iPrep Academy on the first day of school on August 23 in Miami. Lynne Sladky/AP Photo