TALLAHASSEE - An appeals court Friday signaled it thinks school officials in Alachua and Duval counties have violated state law by requiring students to wear masks during the COVID-19 pandemic and ordered lower courts to quickly take up the issue.
A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal stopped short of deciding a lawsuit that has sought to force the two school districts to allow parents to opt children out of mask requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic. But in a seven-page order, it said the districts have been "remarkably open in their defiance" of the state.
"The courts will not wade into the policy battles underway," said the order, written by Judge Robert Long and joined by Judges Brad Thomas and Harvey Jay. "But neither will we refuse to exercise our constitutional authority to compel compliance with the law. Respondents (the school districts) cannot stand between parents and their lawful right to make decisions on behalf of their children."
Instead of the more-usual process of starting in circuit court, the plaintiffs filed the case at the Tallahassee-based appeals court. They sought what is known as a "writ of mandamus" to require the school districts to comply with state law and a Department of Health rule that says parents should be able to opt children out of mask requirements.
The appeals court Friday pointed to a question in the case about whether the plaintiffs are parents of children affected by the Alachua and Duval mask policies. It said such a "question of fact" must be resolved in circuit court.
"We direct the chief judge of each circuit to assign the petition to a circuit judge and that the assigned circuit judges ensure an immediate hearing and a prompt decision on the merits of the petition," Friday’s order said.
The Department of Health rule carried out a July 30 executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis designed to prevent school districts from requiring students to wear masks. But the Alachua and Duval districts were among several in the state that required parents to provide medical documentation before students could be exempted from mask requirements.
The Duval County district, however, announced Friday that it will drop the requirement for medical documentation. The district’s website cited a reduced COVID-19 transmission rate in the county.
"Beginning next week, parents and guardians --- at their sole discretion --- can opt their children out of the face covering requirement without any documentation," the Duval schools website. said. "They only need to complete the online opt-out form in … the district’s online student information system."
Some other districts also have dropped medical-documentation requirements as COVID-19 transmission rates have improved. It was not immediately clear Friday night how the Duval County move could affect the lawsuit.
Six school boards, including the Duval and Alachua boards, also have challenged the Department of Health rule at the state Division of Administrative Hearings. An administrative law judge is expected to rule in that case by the end of next week.
In a document filed at the appeals court, Alachua County attorneys wrote that the district’s policies have followed laws and federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
"In fact, the respondents (the Alachua County School Board and Superintendent Carlee Simon) have the statutory responsibility for the management and operation of the schools in their district," the Oct. 13 document said. "If this duty has any meaning at all, it certainly includes the obligation to ensure a safe environment for the children entrusted to their care. In fulfillment of this critical obligation, respondents have been in constant communication with a team of medical experts and advisors, following data as well as the CDC guidelines, and have not been making up their own laws and rules by any means."
But the appeals court took a different view Friday.
"Respondents (Alachua and Duval school officials) concede their policies do not comply with the rule," the order said. "They do not argue the rule is unclear. They do not argue that the rule does not apply to them. They do not argue they are confused by the rule. They do not argue they have attempted to comply with the rule. Instead, they assert that they are challenging the rule in an administrative proceeding. And they explain that, rather than follow Florida law, they are following their preferred policy recommendations.