DOE doesn’t back down, threatens Orange County Schools over mask mandate after judge’s ruling

ORLANDO, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis’ loss in circuit court Friday means that – for now – school districts have free reign to impose mask mandates to fight the coronavirus.

“The defendants do not have authority under this law to a blanket mandatory ban,” Judge John C. Cooper said in his oral order, emphasizing that the Florida Constitution gave school boards authority over the operation of their schools.

READ: AdventHealth morgues reach capacity due to COVID-19 deaths

Cooper’s ruling is expected to set off a flurry of activity once his written ruling is published next week. Already, some school district leaders are calling for emergency meetings to pass mandates in their counties.

There’s also the certainty that DeSantis and the Florida Department of Education will appeal the ruling in district court, though it’s not clear if the court will think he has enough standing to overturn the judge’s decision or even take up the appeal.

“The judge today doesn’t make one more child in Florida wear a mask,” Stetson Law Professor Louis Virelli, III explained. “That will now be up to the local school boards, and there was a very good argument that that’s always where the power should have been.”

READ: Volusia County Sheriff offers incentives to encourage deputies to get COVID-19 vaccines

Virelli cited the same laws used to form the judge’s opinion, including the Parent’s Bill of Rights (PBOR) that the state’s own legal team used as a defense. While the PBOR gives parents the rights to make medical decisions for their children, it allows governments to intervene when they can argue a health or safety risk, which is in line with other laws.

Cooper used the analogy of drunk driving in his opinion. A person, he said, is free to drink. It becomes the government’s concern when they get behind the wheel and endanger other drivers.

Other than promising to appeal, DeSantis and his legal team have been quiet since the ruling. However, the minute Cooper finished speaking, Orange County Public Schools leaders were sent a letter from Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran.

READ: Florida woman hospitalized with COVID-19 returns home to find husband dead

“I am immediately initiating an investigation of noncompliance with the [anti-mandate] rule,” Corcoran wrote. “I intend to recommend to the state board of education that the department withhold funds.”

Yes, the same rule that Cooper had just declared illegal.

“It flies in the face of what the judge ordered,” Attorney Judi Hayes said. “So I hope that OCPS is prepared to mount a vigorous defense of that threat.”

READ: Florida looks at legal actions, financial sanctions over school districts imposing mask mandates

Hayes said the tactic wasn’t uncommon in cases where the losing side planned to appeal. She also said it was a behavior she expected from the governor as he woos conservative voters for his expected presidential run.

However, her involvement runs deeper than analysis. Hayes is the lead plaintiff in a parallel lawsuit in federal court, which focuses on potential violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“It does certainly bolster our position that the executive order that DeSantis had enacted… overreaches,” she said. “I think that we can, on some level, introduce Judge Cooper’s ruling into our lawsuit, at least to bolster our position that these mask mandates are lawful.”

READ: More than a dozen portable morgues coming to Central Florida after hospital units reach capacity

She said additional paperwork for her case would be filed on Tuesday.

As for the state case, she predicted the appeal process would move quickly and DeSantis’ team would make their filing by the end of next week.

Click here to download the free WFTV news and weather apps, and click here to watch the latest news on your Smart TV.