Are mask mandates in schools legal? What’s next in Florida’s court battle

ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida’s fight over mask mandates in public schools took another twist Wednesday when a Leon County judge ruled that the mandates could proceed while the Department of Education appealed his original decision.

“The greater weight of the evidence did not support the claim that mandatory face masks with medical opt out would create any meaningful harm to those wearing them,” Judge John C. Cooper said. “The stay is set aside.”

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Cooper’s latest decision was a boost to more than a dozen of the state’s school districts that had imposed mandates, only to find them suddenly illegal again. Collectively, more than half of all Florida public school students go to a classroom where masks are mandatory.

Why, though, did they have to go through the whiplash to begin with?

“This is how we find truth in America,” Stetson University Constitutional Law Professor Louis Virelli explained. “We do that in a trial a lot of the time.”

After the judge’s initial ruling two weeks ago, Virelli said he thought Cooper made the correct decision in handing power to local school districts. He reaffirmed that during a follow-up interview Wednesday afternoon.

He said the governor’s appeal was expected, as was the automatic freeze of mask mandates upon that appeal, explaining that stays are automatic in government appeals in case a judge does something that could lead to disruption for citizens.

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“Judge Cooper said today that allowing his decision of last Friday to go into effect, doesn’t do any harm,” Virelli said. “If a school board were to adopt the policy, they could always reverse it.”

Now, everything is in the hands of the district court that will hear the appeal. They also could decide whether to re-freeze mask mandates while they weigh their ruling, though Virelli said that was unlikely.

Ultimately, attorneys widely expect the question of mandates to end up in front of the Florida Supreme Court.

For parents, Virelli said the case underscores the importance of local elections and local involvement by the public.

“Our school boards are the people we elect to make these decisions for our children,” he said. “We are now seeing how important it is to let them do their job in whatever direction we want them to do it... We have one vote among millions and millions of votes for governor, we have one vote among far fewer people for our school board members.”

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The estimated time frame for this case varies widely. If the Supreme Court steps in and snatches it from District Court, it could be decided by the end of the month.

On the other hand, Virelli said a final say may not come until well after the surge is over and mandates are history.

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