Florida judge backs state in challenging school district masking rules

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Claiming that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration had struck the “right balance,” an administrative law judge on Friday dismissed a challenge to a state Department of Health rule designed to prevent students from wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The challenge was filed by school boards in Alachua, Broward, Duval, Miami-Dade, Orange and Leon counties, which are among eight boards that faced financial penalties from the state after adopting the requirements. relating to the student mask.

In a 25-page ruling, Administrative Law Judge Brian Newman upheld the Emergency Rule, which, in part, said decisions to opt out of student mask requirements are at “sole discretion” parents or guardians. He wrote that school boards “have failed to prove that the emergency rule’s withdrawal provisions facilitate the spread of COVID-19 in schools.”

“On the contrary, the admitted evidence in this case established that the emergency rule override provisions strike the right balance in ensuring that the protocols that govern the control of COVID-19 in schools do not go beyond this. which is necessary to ensure the safety of children. and at school, ”Newman wrote.

Lawyers for school boards argued in a two-day hearing last month that the health ministry improperly bypassed normal regulatory processes when it released the September 22 emergency rule. But Newman wrote that the ministry acted within its authority when it issued the rule.

“The preamble to the state of emergency sets out a seemingly adequate factual basis for the development of an emergency rule. In addition, the evidence presented justifies the adoption of emergency rules, ”said the ordinance.

Newman listed a number of changing COVID-19 policies by school districts that have filed the challenge.

“These political pivots are not recited to criticize school boards; COVID-19 policies should be reviewed frequently and adapted to the latest data on COVID-19 cases. But the respondent (the health department) needs to be just as agile when adopting statewide COVID-19 protocols, ”Newman wrote.

The judge, for example, cited the recent adoption by the Leon County School Board of a policy allowing parents to opt out of mask requirements for students, calling it “an indication that such policies are safe “.

The Health Department ruler executed a July 30 executive order by DeSantis that sought to prevent mask warrants. The department issued an initial rule on August 6 and a revised and strengthened version on September 22.

The September 22 rule also allowed children to go to school if they have been exposed to COVID-19 but are asymptomatic, preventing districts from requiring quarantines for those students. This question was not in the August 6 version of the rule.

Newman wrote on Friday that school boards had failed to prove that giving parents control over non-attendance would lead to more children spreading the virus.

“As to whether the exclusion provisions of the emergency rules make it more likely that children will transmit COVID-19 to others, this has also not been proven,” he said. writing. “The state of emergency forces sick children to stay at home. It is extremely rare for asymptomatic people to spread COVID-19, and children are also ineffective transmitters of the … virus. ”

As the case progressed, some districts reduced or eliminated mask requirements as COVID-19 cases in the state declined. For example, the Duval County and Orange County Districts have decided to allow parents to deny their children the ability to wear masks.

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