Florida judge rules mask mandates allowed in schools

Florida schools will once again be allowed to impose mask mandates after a state circuit judge rejected Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisChicago sues police union over refusal to comply with vaccine mandate Crist says as Florida governor he would legalize marijuana, expunge criminal records Big businesses are siding against Texas in mandate fight MORE's (R) appeal of his earlier ruling on Wednesday.

The governor's ban — requiring districts to offer parental opt-outs or face a financial penalty — will now be put on hold while the appeal plays out in a higher court.

Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper's ruling means that effective immediately, Florida can't enforce its ban on mask mandates on schools.

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DeSantis had appealed Cooper’s earlier ruling that found the governor overreached, and the state's new "Parents' Bill of Rights" does not allow the governor or the state Department of Education to prohibit school districts from mandating masks.

Despite the earlier ruling against the governor, the state Department of Education has already moved to cut funding from some districts that required masks of students and teachers. 

The governor’s office indicated it would appeal the latest ruling.

"No surprise here that Judge Cooper concluded that he is unlikely to be overruled on appeal," spokesperson Taryn Fenske said in a statement. "We (unsurprisingly) disagree. Today we plan to file our emergency motion to reinstate the stay, and we anticipate the appellate court will rule quickly, much like during the school re-opening case last year."

During Wednesday's hearing, Cooper said he did not think requiring face masks, with a medical opt-out, “would create any meaningful harm to those wearing them.”

“The evidence in the case was clear, demonstrating that the [Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention] recommendation for universal masking of teachers, students and staff represents overwhelming consensus with scientists, medical doctors and medical organizations,” the judge said. 

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“It's undisputed that the delta variant is far more infectious than the prior … version of the virus, and that children are more susceptible to the delta variant than to the form from a year ago,” Cooper added. “In particular for children under 12, they cannot be vaccinated. Therefore, there's really only one or two means to protect them against the virus — that’s either stay at home or mask.” 

The Second Circuit judge said under the separation of powers, school boards as government institutions have the right to implement policies “related to health which may affect parents’ rights over their children to some small degree.”

The ruling comes as several schools in Florida and elsewhere have challenged bans against mask requirements in schools, taking the issue to the courts. 

DeSantis is not the only Republican governor to institute such a measure, with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and Arizona Gov. Doug DuceyDoug DuceyGOP governors traveling to border to unveil new security initiative Treasury says Arizona can't use federal COVID-19 aid for anti-mask education grants No silver bullet for crisis at the Southern border MORE (R) also prohibiting school mask mandates.

The CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have recommended that all students, teachers and staff older than 2 years old wear masks in schools regardless of their vaccination status. 

Pediatric cases and hospitalizations have surged in the U.S. in recent weeks during the back-to-school season, with the AAP reporting almost 252,000 children have tested positive in the past week. 

The CDC concluded from studies last week that hospitalizations and emergency room visits by children with COVID-19 were higher in states with lower overall vaccination rates. 

More than 1,500 children are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. Thirty percent of those pediatric hospitalizations are in Texas and Florida, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services.