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Closing Arguments Set In School Mask Lawsuit With Ruling Expected Friday

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The closings come after 10 school districts making up about half of Florida's 2.8 million students have enacted mask requirements that flout the governor's challenged executive order.

A ruling is expected Friday in a lawsuit over Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order that bans school districts from requiring students wear masks to protect against COVID-19.

Closing arguments are slated for Thursday before Leon County Judge John Cooper.

A group of parents filed the lawsuit challenging DeSantis’ July 30 order, alleging that it violates a section of the state Constitution that requires providing a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system” of public schools.

The plaintiffs have argued that by allowing masking to be voluntary, the health of their children is at risk. Many of those children are too young to be vaccinated.

Palm Beach County parent Lesley Abravanel said she was shocked when she saw the classroom her kids would be in during a recent open house at the school. Desks were clustered together in groups of four and there was no way for kids to stay distanced.

 “We’re throwing our children into pretty much a petri dish right now. If everyone isn’t required to wear a mask, how are we going to protect children and staff from catching this delta variant? We are not. I’m terrified, and so is every other parent I’ve spoken with,” Abravanel said during testimony this week.

University of South Florida public health professor Thomas Unnash testified that the delta variant is so contagious that if it were compound interest, investors would see a great return, "but in this case, it’s exponential growth of a pretty terrifying infection.”

The state has presented its own witnesses, including two Leon County parents who’ve been challenging the district on its mandatory school mask policy.
Ashley Benton testified that her fifth-grade daughter, who has a sensory processing order that makes mask wearing difficult and painful, is suffering from the district’s policy. Benton, who has been present at several recent school board meetings, says she consulted with her daughter’s pediatrician, but that the doctor refused to sign off on the medical opt-out form the district is requiring.

“At this point, if I can’t get a medical opt-out, I think I will have to pull her out of school,” Benton told the court. Leon school officials have offered to work with Benton on her situation.

The state’s legal defense also included the state’s K-12 Chancellor Jacob Oliva, who noted some students with disabilities and those learning English often struggle when the faces of their teachers are obscured.

Stanford University professor of medicine Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, a witness the state has relied on to dispute the efficacy of wearing masks, was cross-examined Wednesday by the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

A frequent advisor to DeSantis, Bhattacharya noted other countries and public health entities have issued conflicting guidance on the effectiveness of requiring school children to wear face coverings.

He said the World Health Organization does not recommend masks for ages 2 to 5, and that the national health agency in the U.K. have decided not to have masks at all in schools.

"So these bodies are looking at the same evidence base and coming to these conclusions in part because it’s a policy decision that weighs costs and benefits,” Bhattacharya said.

He also noted that while the delta variant is more contagious, he doesn’t believe there’s enough evidence to prove that it is more lethal to children.

DeSantis' order says mask wearing by children in schools should be left to parents to decide. He says mandatory mask policies amount to government making health care decisions, which violates the new Parents Bill of Rights law.

Ten school districts making up about half of Florida's 2.8 million public school students have enacted mask requirements that do not allow parents to opt-out, an apparent violation of the executive order and state rules enacted to enforce it.

Cooper planned to expedite the case, completing the hearing in three days. Instead, it will take another day, but Cooper noted the streamlined approach on Wednesday.

“Whatever the result in this case, I think we could suggest to the (Florida) Supreme Court if they want to know how to try a case really fast, that this might be a good case study on how to do it,” Cooper said.

Copyright 2021 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.