Appeals court reinstates governor’s ban on school mask mandates

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Florida can keep withholding school board members’ salaries for mandating masks.

In a victory for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, an appeals court ruled Friday to keep the state’s ban on student mask mandates in place, at least until it issues a final ruling on the legality of the ban.

The ban on mask requirements — issued by the Florida Department of Health in August after DeSantis directed it to “protect parents’ freedom to choose whether their children wear masks” — had been suspended Wednesday by a judge in Tallahassee. Judge John C. Cooper had ruled that the state could not keep punishing school districts that require masks while the appeals court works toward a final ruling.

Friday’s order overrides Cooper, giving the Florida Board of Education the green light to continue withholding the salaries of school board members in districts that require face coverings for students. The state has imposed that punishment on two districts and has announced investigations into several others.

“Just like last year in the school re-opening litigation, the First District Court of Appeal has reinstated Florida’s ability to protect the freedom for parents to make the best decisions for their children while they make their own ruling on the appeal,” Taryn Fenske, communications director for DeSantis, said in a statement to ABC News. “We look forward to winning the appeal and will continue to fight for parents’ rights.”

DeSantis tweeted, “No surprise here – the 1st DCA has restored the right of parents to make the best decisions for their children. I will continue to fight for parents’ rights.”

Alachua County, one of the districts where school board members’ salaries are being withheld for imposing a mandate, said in a statement that despite Friday’s ruling it will “continue to enforce universal masking in our schools.”

“The decision is disappointing, but we understood from the beginning that the legal battle over masks in schools would take time and not every decision would be favorable,” Alachua County Public Schools Superintendent Carlee Simon said in a statement.

“While Alachua County Public Schools is not part of this particular lawsuit, we certainly support it,” Simon continued. “We are pleased that the plaintiffs plan to continue their fight. In the meantime, our legal challenges are just beginning, and we support the other Florida districts and families who are also taking the state to court over this issue.”

At least 13 school districts, including Florida’s six largest, have implemented mask mandates.

“Upon our review of the trial court’s final judgment and the operative pleadings, we have serious doubts about standing, jurisdiction, and other threshold matters,” Friday’s order states. “These doubts significantly militate against the likelihood of the appellees’ ultimate success in this appeal.”

A lawyer representing the parents who sued the state said Friday’s decision would make students less safe.

“We are disappointed by the ruling of the 1st DCA that reinstates the stay and will be seeking pass through jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Florida since this matter involves statewide issues. With a stay in place, students, parents and teachers are back in harm’s way,” Charles Gallagher, one of the lawyers representing the group of parents who sued the state over its ban on mask mandates, wrote on Twitter.

The U.S. Department of Department said Friday evening it had opened a civil rights investigation into Florida.

The Office of Civil Rights “is concerned that Florida’s policy requiring public schools and school districts to allow parents to opt their children out of mask mandates may be preventing schools in Florida from meeting their legal obligations not to discriminate based on disability and from providing an equal educational opportunity to students with disabilities who are at heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19.”

Florida joins Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah under federal scrutiny.

ABC News’ Anne Flaherty contributed to this report.

Dave Packer reports for ABC News Radio: