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FLORIDA — A Florida judge ruled Friday that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order banning mask mandates in schools was unconstitutional, rejecting many of the DeSantis administration’s claims. The decision clears the way for school districts to impose mask requirements, without state penalties, as COVID-19 cases surge to record highs in the state.

Several parents and Tampa Bay attorneys filed a lawsuit against DeSantis, Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran, the Florida Department of Education and the Florida Board of Education. The parents’ case argued DeSantis exceeded his authority in signing an executive order on July 30 forbidding local school districts from requiring students to wear masks in classrooms unless they allow parents to opt out for any reason.

Three days before DeSantis signed the executive order, he held a meeting about mask policy in schools with doctors, a charter school principal, parents and a high school student who didn’t want to wear a mask, according to Judge John Cooper of Florida’s Second Judicial Circuit.

“The governor was told (at the meeting) by one of the doctors there that the use of masks is child abuse and bringing harm to every child in the country,” Cooper said. “I have seen no scientific evidence that supports that.”

Cooper cited information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that disputed the comments doctors made to the governor. In his opinion, the judge said he read a study that revealed schools where teachers and students wore masks had a 30 percent lower rate of COVID-19 at their facility.

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Florida was in a state of emergency due to the pandemic from March 2020 to June 2021, according to Cooper. DeSantis claimed there was no longer a state of emergency in Florida at the end of June, so the governor’s emergency powers expired at that point, the court said.

Multiple Florida school districts, including those in Alachua, Broward, Duval, Leon, Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Orange, Palm Beach and Sarasota counties, have defied DeSantis by putting mask mandates in place with only medical exemptions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

A statement from Pasco County Schools said Cooper’s ruling has no impact on Pasco Schools’ mask-optional policy. The district said DeSantis’ order remains in effect and he is expected to appeal the decision. Masks remain optional for students and staff in Pasco County Schools.

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Florida continues to be one of the states hardest hit by the fourth wave of COVID-19 cases. In recent weeks, around 150,000 new cases of coronavirus have been reported weekly in the state, a number that has steadily increased since the end of June.

Hospitalizations and deaths from the virus are also higher than they’ve been since the start of the pandemic. The state also had a new case positivity rate of 19.8 percent between Aug. 13-19, according to the Florida Department of Health’s COVID-19 Weekly Situation Report.

Related: Masks, Vaccines In Schools Supported By Floridians: Patch Survey

Cooper brought up the legal issues of separation of power that arose in the case.

“Separation of powers refers to the division of powers into distinct branches of government, each with their own responsibilities,” according to Investopedia. “The intent of separation of powers is to prevent the concentration of unchecked power and to provide for checks and balances, in which the powers of one branch of government is limited by the powers of another branch — to prevent abuses of power and avoid autocracy.”

When DeSantis signed the executive order July 30, he did not have emergency powers, Cooper said.

“Because the governor had no emergency powers when he signed this, if they do not show that they had the power to take these executive orders, the defendants without authority in law then they are without legal basis and therefore are null and void.”

Corcoran sent out a memorandum to all school district superintendents April 14 that requested they not implement a school mask mandate.

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