Local Parents And Schools Clash Over Mask Mandates

Local Parents And Schools Clash Over Mask Mandates
Pro-mask parents rally in front of the Duval County School Board Building on August 3rd, 2021

As the mask mandate debate continues, a recent ruling was passed down Aug. 27 by 2nd Judicial Court Judge John C. Cooper which ruled the state ban on mask mandates invalid and the Governor overreached in his authority.

Cooper said the argument against masks “reflects a minority, perhaps even a small minority of medical and scientific opinion.” He even went so far as to say that the CDC is the “gold standard” for public health, critics would argue the CDC has issued contradictory guidelines since the start of the pandemic, first stating that masks were only necessary for health care workers and people who were sick.

“I conclude that this evidence demonstrates that face mask policies that follow CDC guidance are at this point in time, reasonable and consistent with the best scientific and medical opinion guidance in the country at this time,” Cooper said.

As the number of Delta variant cases of COVID-19 continues to rise, a battle over mask mandates in schools is raging in Jacksonville and across Florida.

Gov. Ron DeSantis previously issued an executive order banning mask mandates by school districts. He also signed into law the “Parents Bill of Rights” passed by the legislature this summer in HB 421. The rulings in question surround much of the language in sections 1014.01-.06.

1014.03 states:

Infringement of Parental Rights — The state, any of its political subdivisions, any other governmental entity, or any other institution may not infringe on the fundamental rights of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health of his or her minor child without demonstrating that such action is reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest and that such action is narrowly tailored and is not otherwise served by a less restrictive means.

Another key section that is being argued is 1041.04, which states:

(1) All parental rights are reserved to the parent of a minor child in this state without obstruction or interference from the state, any of its political subdivisions, any other governmental entity, or any other institution, including, but not limited to, all of the following rights of a parent of a minor child in this state:

Of the nine subsections, lettered a.-i.), e. is an argument that will also be critical in any appeal, it states: e.) The right to make health care decisions for his or her minor child, unless otherwise prohibited by law.

Despite Governor’s order, mask policies implemented

Since the beginning of the school year, at least ten Florida school districts, including Duval, have defied the governor and implemented mask mandates. Many private schools have followed suit. Over half of Florida students are now under mask requirements.

That has led some parents to cry foul, saying the mandates violate the “Parents Bill of Rights” since they should be the ones to make healthcare decisions for their child or children.

The debate over masks has been fierce, particularly in recent weeks as kids head back to school across Florida and the rest of the country.

The Duval School Board initially passed a rule mandating masks for teachers, staff, and students with an opt-out for parents. Less than two weeks later, with COVID numbers on the rise in the district, the board modified its rule and required all students to be masked beginning September 7th for 90-days except those with a note from a licensed health care provider stating a medical, physical, or psychological condition that would prevent them from wearing a mask.

Parents opposed to the mandates say they should be the ones to decide if their kids should wear a mask. They also say the masks can harm the mental state of some students, making it more difficult for them to learn. Supporters say it’s a public health issue that supersedes opponents’ objections.

While the Centers for Disease Control, the American Medical Association, and the American Association of Pediatricians, including the Florida chapter all recommend students wear masks in schools, not everyone is convinced.

Jacksonville M.D. Dr. Carmen Martinez told the Duval School Board cloth masks aren’t necessary. “The treatment for this is Vitamins D, C, A, and Zinc,” she said. This is what we should be doing. Not wearing masks. The holes in the masks are huge compared to the size of the aerosolized virus.”

Other doctors like Duval County Medical Society Foundation President Dr. Sunil Joshi said masks are not the only thing that can be used to fight COVID, but they are a benefit.

“Our hospitals are at near capacity. This is not just about children. It is about the spread in the community,” he said.

Private School ruling pending, arguing mandates violates law

A group of parents has filed suit against Episcopal High School in early-August after the school implemented a mask mandate for its student body, the decision was rendered the day prior to the return of students to campus.

They say the “Parents Bill of Rights” supersedes the school’s rule and they should be the ones to determine if their kids should mask up.

Attorney Daniel Bean, of Abel Bean Law P.A., is representing the parents. He says since the U.S Food and Drug Administration says the mask is a medical device, the schools, both public and private are making a health care decision for children and argues that the policy is in violation of the law.

“All of these parents love their school, they love it so much that they don’t want to see it interfere with the law,” said Bean. “They also want to be clear that they have respect for the senior leadership [at ESJ].” He said the parents understand the difficult position school officials were in. It is just that the decision to wear a mask should be left to the parents.

Episcopal attorney Stephen Busey said the “Parents Bill of Rights” doesn’t apply.

“The governor’s executive order and the statute relied on by the parents are not applicable to religious private schools,” he said. “Moreover, the parents agreed in their enrollment contracts to abide by the school’s policies, existing and as they may be amended in the future.”

Government law attorney Chris Hand said the “Parents Bill of Rights” doesn’t apply to either public and private schools regarding mask mandates.  He said the State Constitution mandates that “Adequate provision shall be made by law for a…safe…system of free public schools”. Hand said since COVID-19 is a health crisis, administrators have a legal responsibility to keep schools safe.

Senior Circuit Court Judge Robert Foster will decide on September 3rd if he’ll grant a stay of existing mandates or proceed to trial for further arguments. The trial would begin in early October. As of this writing, it’s unclear how the Cooper ruling will affect Foster’s decision, which deals with a private school and not public, but has serious implications for every parent.

Cooper also ruled the “Parents Bill of Rights” gives school districts the authority to require masks based on their discretionary powers.

“The doctrine of separation of powers requires that the discretionary power exercised by the school board, cannot be interfered with by the judiciary, or by the executive branch of government, and neither the judiciary nor the executive can substitute judgment for the school board’s power.”

Cooper also said the State Department of Education can’t financially punish School Board members who wouldn’t comply with their order.

The state is expected to counter and take the case to the First District Court of Appeals. We will continue to cover events as they occur, stay tuned via Facebook for any updates and a follow up in October.

By Kevin J. Meerschaert
Resident Community News

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