TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A northern Florida judge on Friday ruled that the state could not stop school districts in Florida from issuing mask mandates, partially siding with parents who challenged the governor’s ban against school mask mandates.

Judge John Cooper of Florida’s 2nd Judicial Circuit granted an injunction against all defendants except for Gov. Ron DeSantis in making that ruling.

The suit named DeSantis, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the Florida Department of Education and the Florida Board of Education as defendants.

Cooper said in his oral ruling that his injunction bans Corcoran, the Florida Department of Education and the Florida Board of Education from “taking any action to effect a blanket ban on facemask mandates with no parent opt-out by local school boards.”

The judge also granted an injunction “against denying the school boards their due process rights” granted by the Florida Parents’ Bill of Rights to permit school boards “to demonstrate the reasonableness of the mandate and other factors stated in law.”

Any such action violates the Parents’ Bill of Rights, the judge declared. Cooper said his ruling was the first for the new Parents' Bill of Rights law, which the governor used as his basis for banning mask mandates. He suggested that DeSantis did not properly apply the law.

Yet Cooper said he excluded DeSantis from the ruling because the governor doesn’t enforce laws.

The judge said his ruling would go into effect once he has signed a written order, which won’t happen until at least early next week.

DeSantis spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said in an email statement that the governor would immediately appeal to Florida's First District Court of Appeal, "where we are confident we will prevail on the merits of the case."

"It’s not surprising that Judge Cooper would rule against parent’s rights and their ability to make the best educational and medical decisions for their family, but instead rule in favor of elected politicians," Fenske said. "This ruling was made with incoherent justifications, not based in science and facts — frankly not even remotely focused on the merits of the case presented."

Florida Department of Education spokesman Jared M. Ochs said in an email statemement that "we will push forward on appeal to ensure that this foundation of democracy is upheld."

"We are immensely disappointed that the ruling issued today ... discards the rule of law," Ochs said. "This decision conflicts with basic and established rights of parents to make private health care and education decisions for children."

Cooper dismissed one count in the six-count complaint and declined to grant relief in two counts, so the overall effects of the judge’s ruling remain unclear.

For example, Cooper declined plaintiffs’ request for “a declaratory judgment determining that the State Government Defendants have failed to abide by the requirements of the Florida Constitution by enacting the Executive Order that precludes county school boards from enacting mandatory masking.”

School districts with mask mandates

Many school districts have ordered mask mandates that allow parents to send notes to school and let their children "opt out" of those rules. 

DeSantis said those districts align with the spirit of his executive order.

But he said school districts that allowed children to opt out of a mask mandate only if they had a doctor's note violated his order and could be penalized. Here are those districts, which Friday's ruling apparently cleared:

  • Alachua
  • Broward
  • Duval
  • Hillsborough
  • Indian River 
  • Leon
  • Miami-Dade
  • Orange (starts Monday)
  • Palm Beach
  • Sarasota

The lawsuit, brought by parents who live in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Orange, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Alachua counties, claims the governor's order preventing school districts from requiring masks violates Florida’s constitution.

DeSantis maintains that school districts should leave it up to parents to decide whether their children wear masks in classrooms. Most Florida districts have left the question of masks optional.

During Thursday's closing arguments, lawyers for both sides reiterated themes that continue to play out statewide and nationally.

For the plaintiffs: Florida’s COVID-19 crisis, the safety of children, the power of their witnesses’ testimony, the efficacy and importance of masks and the right of school districts to decide for their constituents.

For the defense: Florida’s politics, the freedom of parents and children, the power of their witnesses’ testimony, the ineffectiveness and potential harms of masks and the right of parents to decide for their children.

Judge's lengthy rationale

In comments before his oral ruling on Friday, Cooper cited a 1914 Florida Supreme Court ruling that he said addressed balancing one’s own rights with the rights of others.

“It’s our right to drink alcohol … but we cannot get in our car and start driving around …," he said. "The driver is now putting at risk other people.”

The judge also noted the recommendations of the masking of students by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which he called the U.S. “gold standard” for guidance on health.

He said the COVID-19 delta variant “presents a higher risk to children” than previous strains of the virus.

“We had a less-dangerous form of the virus last year than this year,” he said. “I’m talking about the facts on the ground now as I understand it from the evidence.”

Cooper spoke for about two hours in advance of his ruling, and he hinted to his decision along the way.

He referred to a video from a July 27 DeSantis roundtable discussion that the defense admitted into evidence. The judge noted that — and appeared to question why — all participants in the roundtable, which included Stanford professor Jay Bhattacharya, a defense witness, spoke in support of the governor's position on masks in schools.

"No participant at that meeting … this fact-finding meeting, proposed a mandated face mask policy with no parental opt-out such as those being implientemed by a number of school district in Florida," the judge said. "No one advocated for any CDC-recommended policy."

As for the Parents' Bill of Rights, Cooper said the law "expressly permits school boards to adopt policies regarding health care of students such as a facemask mandate, even if a parent disagrees with that policy. 

"The law requires only that the policy be reasonable, is necessary to achieve a compelling state interest and be narrowly tailored ..."

He added: "The actions of the defendants do not pass constitutional muster because they seek to deprive the school boards in advance and without the school boards’ right to show the reasonableness of the policy."

In light of Friday's ruling, the Osceola County School Board has called an emergency meeting for 5:30 p.m. Monday to discuss expanding its 30-day mask mandate, which currently allows parents to opt out. 

Board member Terry Castillo said things may change now that the district doesn't have to worry about retribution from DeSantis.

"We're going to do what's best for our individual communities, and as advocates for parents, we're going to have their voices heard as well," he said. 

Spectrum News 13 reporter Jeff Allen contributed to this story.