TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida NAACP, Florida Student Power Network, and several medically vulnerable families across Florida are requesting a hearing before the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings to invalidate an Emergency Rule that prohibits mask requirements in public schools across Florida, according to a petition filed today with the agency.
The petition seeks to protect families’ rights to send their children to free and safe public schools. It argues that the Florida Department of Health went beyond the bounds of its legal authority to issue the Emergency Rule on August 6 in violation of the Florida Administrative Procedure Act. This is the third legal challenge to be filed against the rule.
Petitioners Maya King and her 11-year-old son are both medically vulnerable and would face serious illness or death if they contracted COVID-19, especially the highly transmissible Delta variant. Her son, a fifth grader in Pasco County Schools, suffers from asthma and has permanently damaged lungs due to the amount of oxygen he received at birth. Ms. King worries that his exposure to the virus could put their entire family at risk.
Based on the Emergency Rule, Pasco County Schools will not require students to wear masks, even though masks were required, and more stringent COVID-19 protocols were in place last school year prior to the surge of the more contagious and deadly Delta variant. Despite the lack of these basic protections, all students in the district, including medically vulnerable children like Ms. King’s son, who does not yet qualify for the vaccine, must attend school in person.
Other petitioners in the lawsuit face similar concerns in their school districts across Florida. They are represented by lawyers for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC); the Law Offices of Joshua Spector, P.A.; and Education Law Center of New Jersey.
“The Emergency Rule falls far short of the public health and safety measures that scientific experts recommend for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 and the Delta variant,” said Evian White DeLeon, senior staff attorney for the SPLC children’s rights practice group. “And, unfortunately, our children are knowingly being put in danger without the commonsense protections they need to be safe while in school. It is shameful.”
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 COVID-19 and the Delta variant. People with underlying medical conditions are more likely to become severely ill and require hospitalization and intensive care as a result of contracting the virus. Long-standing, systemic health and social inequities put communities of color and people with disabilities at a disproportionate risk of getting sick and dying from the virus.
“With Florida schools operating fully in person and COVID-19 cases surging, it’s easy to understand families’ urgent concern for the health and safety of their children,” said Jessica Levin, Education Law Center Senior Attorney and Director of Public Funds Public Schools, a joint campaign of ELC and SPLC to support public education. “Masks are a crucial tool in mitigating exposure to the virus and promoting students’ access to safe public schools.”
Several school districts across Florida are following the science and requiring their students to wear masks in defiance of the Emergency Rule but face penalties from the Florida Department of Education for doing so. Last month, Leon County Circuit Court Judge John C. Cooper issued an order blocking the state’s ban on universal facemask requirements in schools. However, the ban remains in place while the decision is being appealed by the state.
More information about the petition can be found here.