PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. – Today, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Law Offices of Joshua Spector, P.A. filed a legal complaint challenging part of an Emergency Rule issued on August 6 by the Florida Department of Health that prohibits school districts from requiring students to wear masks.
The petition was filed in Florida's Fourth District Court of Appeal on behalf of the Florida State Conference of the NAACP and families in Palm Beach County with medically-vulnerable members who would face severe health challenges, including death, if they were to contract COVID-19 or the highly transmissible Delta variant. In Florida alone, nearly 500,000 people under the age of 20 are known to have been infected with the virus since the pandemic began.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend the use of masks in schools to significantly reduce the spread of virus-laden droplets by asymptomatic and presymptomatic infected individuals.
The petition seeks a court order invalidating the mask-related portions of the Emergency Rule under the Florida Administrative Procedure Act, which outlines the specific criteria state agencies must follow to circumvent the normal rulemaking process to issue an emergency rule. Chief among these requirements is that the rule must be “necessary” to address "immediate danger to the public health, safety, or welfare."
The Florida Department of Health stated that it was issuing the August 6 Emergency Rule because "a recent increase in COVID-19 infections, largely due to the spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant, coincides with the imminent start of the school year," making it "imperative that state health and education authorities provide emergency guidance to school districts concerning the governance of COVID-19 protocols in schools."
"The Department of Health's rationale is nonsensical—the rise of the Delta variant makes it more, not less, important for schools to require masks and the fact that schools plan to do so is not a danger to the public health, safety, or welfare," said SPLC Senior Staff Attorney Sam Boyd, one of the several SPLC attorneys representing the petitioners. "The Department of Health abused its emergency rulemaking power to pass this rule, preventing the public and schools from being heard about how dangerous it is. It does zero to protect the public, especially children who desperately want to return to school but only if it is safe to do so. This rule cannot stand."
The Department issued the Emergency Rule in response to Gov. Ron DeSantis' July 30 Executive Order that bars school districts from requiring their students to wear masks in school. In it, he directed the Department to issue regulations in accordance with the order and Florida's Parent's Bill of Rights, which Gov. DeSantis signed into law the day before he issued his anti-mask mandate order. The Parents’ Bill of Rights, however, does not include masks. Gov. DeSantis’ latest actions represent a pattern of tyrannical decisions that politicize children and place their education, safety, and well-being in the crosshairs of his political goals.
Jaime Walsh is a nine-year old student in Palm Beach County. She has Down syndrome and is under the care of numerous physicians. She has a greater risk of dying from COVID-19 because of her medical conditions and having already survived double pneumonia after twelve days in the hospital. The Emergency Rule forces Jaime to stay at home with no access to the synchronous remote classes and therapies she received throughout the pandemic during the last school year.
Other stories like Jamie’s are described in the complaint here.
"These children and their families and many others like them have a right to attend safe schools, but the Florida Department of Health rule and the Governor’s relentless disregard for their well-being makes schools less safe and inaccessible," said Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Florida State Conference of the NAACP. “We are suing to ensure they are not unfairly denied access and to reverse the disparate impact of the pandemic on communities of color and children with disabilities who are already detrimentally impacted by discriminatory barriers in the healthcare and education systems.”