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Saturday, May 25, 2024

ACPS’ mask mandate is legal, state judge rules

The decision comes after a heated battle between ACPS and the Florida Department of Education

Masks are here to stay in Alachua County Public Schools. 

Leon County's Circuit Court Judge John Cooper called Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on school district mask mandates unconstitutional and ruled against it Friday.

ACPS was one of 10 counties to challenge DeSantis’ mask mandate ban, joining Broward, Hillsborough, Leon, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Sarasota, Duval, Indian River and Orange County. 

Following DeSantis’ executive order preventing schools from creating blanket mask mandates, a group of Florida parents of public school children sued the Florida Department of Education, the Florida Board of Education, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and the governor.

In his ruling, Cooper established the defendants did not have the authority to prevent school boards from imposing mask mandates—making DeSantis' order unconstitutional.

Cooper’s Friday ruling means the mask mandate ban will become null and void, as he determined the state “violated local district due process rights.” 

Until the written order is issued next week, the mask mandate ban will remain in effect. 

After Cooper’s ruling, a spokesperson for DeSantis delivered a statement conveying the administration’s distaste for the outcome, citing an infringement on parents’ right to choose.

“It’s not surprising that Judge Cooper would rule against parent’s rights and their ability to make the best educational and medical decisions for their family, but instead rule in favor of elected politicians,” the statement read. “This ruling was made with incoherent justifications, not based in science and facts — frankly not even remotely focused on the merits of the case presented.”

Cooper, in a Zoom call that was live streamed on YouTube, said that the governor had expressed doubts about the validity of the CDC’s guidance in his executive order.

“The CDC, by the overwhelming weight of evidence, is considered the preeminent medical authority in this country,” Cooper said. “The state of Florida has, in the past on many occasions, adopted and incorporated CDC guidelines and recommendations into the state statutes.”

“So not only do the doctors here recognize the CDC as a legitimate, reputable source of information, it appears that over many years, so has the Florida legislature.” 

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After the ACPS mask mandate was put into place, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent an email Aug. 20 to Alachua County Superintendent Carlee Simon requesting records for any student reprimanded for not complying with ACPS’ “unlawful face covering mandate policy.”

On Aug. 26, a day before Cooper’s ruling, Simon curtly replied to Corcoran’s demands. 

“Given that the School Board of Alachua County does not have an unlawful face covering mandate policy, we do not have anything to report,” Simon’s email read.

In Simon’s official statement about the ruling, she agreed with the court’s decision, but warned that this ruling is not the end of the battle.

“The state has made it very clear that it would appeal any decision it considered unfavorable,” Simon wrote. “Fortunately the School Board has given me the authority to take legal action to protect our district’s ability to make decisions in the best interests of our students, families, employees and the broader community.”

The Alachua County School Board celebrated after Cooper’s decision; their defiance of DeSantis’ executive order proved legal in the end. 

School Board chair Leanetta McNealy said she felt like “dancing a jig.”

“I’m happy, and it’s almost like it’s my birthday,” McNealy said. “Little do they know how this helps all of the children and all of the employees in our community.”

McNealy, along with other board members, was in charge of creating the mask mandate. Advice from medical professionals was one of the biggest foundations of their decision, she said, sometimes even providing advice via email.

UF should also be careful to listen to those medical professionals for the Fall semester, she said, especially considering the recent spike in COVID-19 cases from the Delta variant. 

On Friday, Alachua County had 403 total COVID-19 patients. Of those patients, 16 were pediatric cases. Above all, vaccinations paired with masking is the right combination to prevent classroom spread, she said.

“Now we need to be more encouraged than ever to go on and take the vaccine,” McNealy said.

Contact Max Taylor at Follow her on Twitter @MTaylor_Journ.

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Max Taylor

Max is a first year journalism major. In the past, she worked as the Editor-in-Chief of her high school's yearbook, and she is now a News Desk Assistant for The Alligator. When she isn't reporting, Max enjoys reading and rock music.

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