Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on mandatory school mask policies faces a challenge in a Tallahassee courtroom on Friday afternoon.
Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper is scheduled to hear a lawsuit brought by parents from several large school districts who are asking that limits be lifted on mandatory masking as children across Florida are returning to school.
DeSantis has repeatedly said it should be up to parents to decide whether their children will wear masks in classrooms. But with infections from the delta variant surging, some school districts are following guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention instead. The CDC recommends that everyone wear masks indoors in places where the risk of contagion is high.
The lawsuit says the mask ban violates Florida’s constitution, which grants power solely to local school boards to operate, control, and supervise classes within their districts. The parents also claim that while it may be safe to operate schools in some areas of the state without masks, it is not safe to do so in “crisis” areas of Florida which includes Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa, St. Petersburg, West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami.
The parents who brought the lawsuit are from Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Orange, Alachua, Hillsborough, and Pinellas counties.
In some counties, students and teachers who returned to classrooms only days ago are already under a COVID-19 quarantine.
In Palm Beach County, officials said they ended the second day of classes with 440 students sent home to quarantine because of 51 cases detected among staff members and students.
Orange County’s school system reported 333 total cases after classes began this week, with 20 teachers and 39 students still quarantined.
Federal health officials said Thursday that Florida has seen more COVID-19 cases in the past week than all 30 states with the lowest case rates combined. Florida and Texas alone accounted for roughly 40% of new COVID-19 hospitalizations over the last seven-day period, officials added.
“In the past week, Florida has had more COVID-19 cases than all 30 states with the lowest case rates, combined,” White House COVID-19 task force coordinator Jeff Zients said Thursday. “Florida and Texas alone have accounted for nearly 40% of new hospitalizations across the country.”
The war of words between Florida and the federal government over DeSantis' handling of the COVID-19 pandemic continued this week, with White House press secretary Jen Psaki claiming the Republican governor "does not seem to want to participate" in the fight against the virus.
Asked Wednesday about a New York Post op-ed that accused the Biden adminsitration of trying to "kneecap" a successful GOP governor, Psaki replied:"Our war is not on DeSantis, it's on the virus, which we're trying to kneecap."
DeSantis, she added, "does not seem to want to participate in that effort to kneecap the virus, hence our concern."
President Biden on Tuesday said that the effort to ban mask mandates is "totally counterintuitive and, quite frankly, disingenuous."
"When I suggest that people in zones where there's a high risk wear the mask like you all are doing, I'm told that government should get out of the way and not do that. you don't have the authority to do that," Biden said.
"And I find it interesting that some of the very people who are saying that who hold government positions are people who are threatening that if a school teacher asks a student if they've been vaccinated, or if a principal says that everyone in my school should wear a mask if the school board votes for it, that governor will nullify that," Biden continued. "That governor has the authority to say, 'You can't do that.'
"I find that totally counterintuitive and, quite frankly, disingenuous," Biden said, adding that his administration is checking to see whether or not the federal government has the power to intervene
At an event Thursday, Biden thanked local leaders and school officials "who are standing up to the governors politicizing mask protections."
"Thank god that we have heroes like you. I stand with you all, and America should as well," he added.
"I know there are a lot of people out there trying to turn a public safety measure, and that is children wearing masks in school so they can be safe, into a political dispute," Biden said. "This isn't about politics. It's about keeping our children safe."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.