MIAMI, Fla. — Calling many of the plaintiffs' claims "speculative," "wholly untethered to the allegations" and "without merit," a federal District Court judge has declined to halt Gov. Ron DeSantis' school mask mandate ban.
What You Need To Know
- Plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against Gov. Ron DeSantis' school mask mandate ban, sought preliminary injunction to keep the ban from remaining in effect
- The judge in the case, K. Michael Moore, released a 34-page ruling Wednesday, denying the plaintiffs' motion
- Moore found that because individual administrative options had not been exhausted, he could not block the ban outright
Judge K. Michael Moore issued his ruling in a 34-page opinion Wednesday, leaving intact the executive order DeSantis issued on July 30 that bars Florida school districts from requiring masks in school.
The plaintiffs in the case are 11 parents of 16 students from eight Florida school districts. They have argued that the mask mandate ban violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and is a violation of the Rehabilitation and Florida Equity Acts.
The defendants in the case are DeSantis, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the Florida Department of Education and the Florida Board of Education.
Circuit Court Judge John Cooper ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in late August, finding that the mask mandate ban violated the Parent Bill of Rights. The injunction that prohibited enforcement of the school mask mandate ban was automatically stayed when DeSantis appealed the ruling on Sept. 2, but Cooper lifted the stay on Sept. 8, again prohibiting the mask mandate ban from being enforced.
"I don’t know of any case, and I’ve not had one pointed out to me, where a court had to deal with a nondisputed pandemic situation with threats to young children who had, at least based on the evidence, arguably, have no way to avoid this except to stay home and isolate themselves," Cooper said in his Sept. 8 ruling. "I think everybody agrees that’s not good for them."
The majority of Moore's ruling Wednesday hinged on the argument that he did not believe the plaintiffs had exhausted all the administrative options available to the students on an individual level with their respective schools.
Plaintiffs argued that they didn't have to "exhaust" all administrative remedies because they were claiming a denial of services, not a denial of free access to public education (FAPE).
Moore found that argument to be "wholly untethered to the allegations in the complaint" — which he called "replete with explicit reverences to alleged denials of FAPE."
Moore went on to say that "it bears mentioning that given the unique circumstances of each child ... each of Plaintiffs' children would benefit from the individualized process afforded by IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act)," not a wholesale prohibition on the mask mandate ban.
The plaintiffs have also not shown how an injunction would solve the problems they cite in their complaint — while pursuing an administrative solution very well could, Moore wrote.
Moore went on to say there were "legitimate concerns with respect to Plaintiff's standing in this case," and pointed to the fact that the Florida Department of Health — which implemented the rule that required school districts to allow parents to opt out of any mask mandate — was not named in the lawsuit.
He argued that since an injunction would not "have any impact on the FDH rule" it was not clear if it would "actually provide redress to any of Plaintiffs' alleged injuries."
Moore also ruled that the plaintiffs had not shown how the mask mandate ban would cause irreparable injury because the students still have the opportunity to attend school and learn, just not necessarily "at the school of his or her choice."
"Here, for the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that Plaintiffs have failed to establish irreparable harm because they have not been denied educational services all together," he wrote, adding that just because students with cognitive disabilities may not be well-suited for virtual learning, that does not "amount to a denial of education services altogether."
"... and Plaintiff's concerns with respect to virtual learning, therefore, do not amount to irreparable harm."
In the end, Moore's ruling boiled down to the students' administrative options, which have to be exhausted before moving forward.
"The Court would note, however, that if a child is truly so immunocompromised that COVID-19 has a high probability of causing severe illness or death ... these measures just might save that child’s life. In the Court’s view, that is where the interest of these children lies," Moore wrote. "For these reasons, although a universal mask mandate might be of some benefit to Plaintiffs’ children, the Court finds that the balance of harms weighs in favor of Plaintiffs exhausting their administrative remedies in order to better address the specific harms posed to each child."
After Moore's ruling, the plaintiffs' attorney Matthew W. Dietz, litigation director of Disability Independence Group, Inc., released the following statement:
The court found that because this involved a child’s education, administrative preconditions would need to be exhausted. We believe that the court misconstrued the recent Supreme Court decision of Fry v. Napoleon County Schools, especially when all children suffer damage in their education when excluded from their schools.
Since exhaustion of administrative preconditions in Florida takes at least 75 days for a decision, this decision essentially blocks all children with disabilities who would be seriously injured or die if they became infected with COVID-19 from being able to return safely to their school. In addition, the same regulation that gives parents the choice to opt out of masking their child also gives parents the right for immediate relief if their children were excluded or segregated like these children with disabilities.
We are disappointed in the decision of the Court and are evaluating our options at this point. Unfortunately, due to the delay of this court, and delay of appellate remedies, in all likelihood, these kids will be forced to risk their lives or choose to accept a less than equal alternative.
We continue to hope and expect the Department of Education and the Department of Justice to opine on the rights of children with disabilities to be safely integrated into their local schools, or have some congressional action to clarify the rights of children with disabilities.