A court battle over school masks began in Florida on Monday. Parents across the state who argue that Gov. Ron DeSantis’s administration should not have prohibited schools from enforcing the mandatory use of the mask in schools.
The Leon County court trial has other states and local school district officials, many of whom are still grappling with the issue of mandatory face masks as coronavirus cases and school quarantines rise.
Ultimately, the case confronts personal freedom with collective responsibility. It could also address some important questions: How much authority do the Governor and Legislature have over local schools? Does the DeSantis order address a real emergency? And what use are masks?
Michael Abel, representing the Governor and the Department of Education, began by recognizing that everyone involved wants the best for the children. “We do not blame or criticize the families of the plaintiffs for the action they are taking,” Abel said.
But the mask for children, Abel said, is far from a settled issue. He said the governor made a political decision to protect parents’ freedom to make health decisions for their children.
The plaintiffs, including parents from Hillsborough, Pinellas, Alachua and Palm Beach counties, argued that mask-wearing mandates are “critically important” to keeping their children safe. Kristen Thompson, a mother of three in Gainesville, said her seven-year-old first-grade daughter has medical problems that prevent her from wearing a mask.
“We need other people to wear masks so the virus doesn’t get to them,” said Thompson, who also stated that she has heard other parents say they will send their children to school sick.
“That scares me,” he said. “If people wear masks it protects everyone else who is not responsible.”
The court dispute is ongoing as an increasing number of Florida school districts enforce the use of face masks, and as President Joe Biden’s administration threatens to take legal action against governors preventing local school officials from demanding masks as protection against coronavirus.
Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, Palm Beach, Alachua, Leon and Sarasota school districts have said they require students and staff to wear face masks, in defiance of the state’s “parental bill of rights” law and parental orders. the DeSantis administration.
The remaining districts of the state have made wearing masks voluntary or have allowed parents to override any mask requirements, although the Orange and Duval school boards are considering making the use of the mask mandatory this week.
Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said Monday that he supports the district’s mask mandate. The majority of the School Board members support the obligation to wear a mask and could address the issue at their meeting on Tuesday.
Some Pinellas County parents have also lobbied their school board to enforce the mandatory use of the mask at school,
In Palm Beach and Sarasota counties, some parents are protesting their district’s mask mandate.
Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said Friday the state will deduct salaries for Alachua and Broward school board members for what he said was a “flagrant” violation of the law. But it’s unclear when the Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Palm Beach, Sarasota and Leon county school boards will begin the same investigative process that Alachua and Broward did.
Alachua School District Superintendent Carlee Simon told state education officials on Sunday that her district has no plans to change its mask policy because it will help “keep students in classrooms and out of the hospital.” As a result, the state could soon begin withholding $ 13,429 a month from the district.
The Broward County School Board planned to communicate to the state what its members intend to do with the district’s mask policy before 10 a.m. Tuesday. If the board doesn’t back down on its policy, the state could withhold about $ 31,000 a month from that district.
The plaintiffs’ witnesses dominated the first day of the trial. Among them were parents who spoke of their personal experiences and medical experts who spoke of the virus and masks.
Thomas Unnasch, an infectious disease expert at the University of South Florida, was the plaintiffs’ first witness. During an hour of testimony, Unnasch explained that the delta variant of COVID-19 had a death rate that was twice that of seasonal influenza and was much more contagious than previous strains of the virus, especially for children.
In addition to Unnasch, two doctors from Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg stated, reinforcing the position that the delta variant is affecting children more than previous strains and that school masks will help prevent its spread.
“In an ideal world you wouldn’t need a mask mandate and everyone would do the right thing,” Unnasch said. “But unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world.”
Unnasch said the best way to keep the virus at bay and ensure education in classrooms is vaccination. But since children under 12 cannot yet be vaccinated, Unnasch said masks are important to prevent contagion.
“Right now we are going back to what we know works … wearing the mask … and improving ventilation in classrooms,” Unnasch said.
The experts added that he had not conducted any studies on the effectiveness of masks in schoolchildren, but he referred to other research that, he says, shows that they can reduce the spread of airborne particles by between 75% and 99%, depending on the type. .
Asked whether it is safe for children to return to school without a mask, Unnasch said such requirements should not be necessary.
Parents should have the right to guide decisions about the health of their children, as the government has declared, he acknowledged. But only to the extent that those decisions do not have a serious impact on others.
Amy Nell of Tampa and Kristen Thompson of Gainesville told the court they joined the lawsuit because they see the value of face-to-face education for their children but are concerned about the health implications of mask-optional policies.
They argue that local school district leaders are better prepared to make the decision than state government officials.
Nell said she doesn’t view masks as a matter of parental choice. It’s a public health issue, he said.
“This is not going to go away without community involvement,” he said of the virus.
Damaris Allen, a Tampa mother and also a plaintiff, called the state’s argument that parents deserve a choice a “false narrative.”
“The mask that I wear keeps others from catching it,” he said. “By saying that we cannot have a mask mandate, they are saying that my decision, no choice, does not matter …. It is absolutely a public health issue.”
The case will resume at 9:30 am Tuesday. The plaintiffs said they expect to be finished by noon, after which the defense will present its arguments.
Jay Battacharya, a professor at Stanford University, an expert DeSantis has repeatedly turned to during the pandemic, will be the defense’s top medical expert.
Secretary of State for Health Scott Rivkees, who is also a pediatrician formerly associated with the University of Florida, was not on the witness list provided Monday.
The Florida Department of Health did not respond to requests for comment on whether Rivkees plans to testify.