When it comes to the latest debate on face mask requirements in schools, Florida has been ground zero. Timing is everything, right? Just as the current school year was getting underway here a few weeks ago, the latest wave of coronavirus -- this time as the more aggressive Delta variant -- was cresting at numbers yet to be seen since the pandemic first began. And the numbers are still climbing as of this blog post.
Last year in schools, COVID-19 protocols were a top priority. Virtual learning options were put in place, seating charts -- from the bus to the cafeteria -- were created for contact tracing purposes, hand sanitizer stations everywhere, social distancing and, of course, face masks.
This year, most school districts were set to open with no mask requirements for students, staff and visitors. It’s no coincidence as Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order ("Ensuring Parents' Freedom to Choose") in late July preventing schools from requiring the face coverings, leaving that decision to parents/caregivers.
With the pandemic cranking back up as the first day of school approached, some districts got creative at the last minute in order to stay on the good side of the governor’s order, not to risk loss of funding, salaries or other consequences. A solution for some districts: Requiring kids to wear masks for the first 30 days of school, unless a parent or guardian sends a note, opting them out of it. Problem solved, right? Not as such.
The school districts are walking a tightrope when it comes to this situation. But these continue to be unprecedented times. Concerned parents and other parties have some more room to work with though. And Civil Rights law is at the heart of arguments.
According to recent news reports, the U.S. Department of Education is asking its Office of Civil Rights to investigate schools that have blocked school mask mandates.
"We are prepared to launch investigations with our Office for Civil Rights to ensure that all students have access to this fundamental right of education ... We're going to use our Office for Civil Rights to investigate any claims that come forward to make sure that students' rights are kept," Education Secretary Miguel Cardona was recently quoted as saying.
So far, five states have been sent warnings by the U.S. Department of Education.
The major point being examined from this angle: Is the barring of face mask rules denying all students the right to a safe learning space and discriminatory?
Arguments can be made for those students most impacted by events put in motion by the pandemic -- children with disabilities, low-income household and minorities.
In the meantime, a Leon County, FL, Circuit Judge ruled just last week against the governor's executive order. For now, the decision blocks the state from issuing any bans over school districts imposing their own mask mandates.
Several main points factored into the judge’s ultimate decision. Check out some more facts and commentary on the case here.
More legal proceedings in Florida and across other parts of the country on this issue are breaking new ground amid a modern-day pandemic, yet half-century laws could be what helps makes the case for all concerned.
Stay tuned as the state plans to appeal the decision.
We’ll talk more about the appeals process here on this blog soon.
Live in Central Florida and have legal questions? Contact Woodard & Ferguson -- Attorneys at Law.