TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A northern Florida judge set closing arguments for 10:15 a.m. Thursday and said he aimed to deliver his ruling Friday morning in a parents’ lawsuit that challenges Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban against school mask mandates.

What You Need To Know

  • Judge plans to rule Friday in suit that challenges governor's ban against school mask mandates 

  • Closing arguments are scheduled to begin at 10:15 a.m. Thursday after 3 days of testimony

  • Judge John Cooper hails the speed of the trial, which he initially declared would be 'expedited' case

  • Previous Coverage: Parents suing DeSantis over school mask mandate ban back in court

Judge John Cooper of Florida’s 2nd Judicial Circuit told attorneys at the end of the third and final day of testimony Wednesday that he planned to rule at 10 a.m. Friday but would let them know if he needed more time.

“Whatever the result in this case," he said, "I think we could suggest to the Supreme Court if they want to know how to try a case really fast that this might be a good case study on how to do it.”

Cooper declared in the initial hearing two weeks ago that he planned to move and rule quickly in the “expedited case.”

“So that’s pretty good, I think,” he said during Wednesday’s hearing on Zoom.

The lawsuit, brought by parents who live in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Orange, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Alachua counties, claims the governor's order preventing school districts from requiring masks violates Florida’s constitution.

The suit names DeSantis, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the Florida Department of Education and the Florida Board of Education as defendants.

DeSantis maintains that school districts should leave it up to parents to decide whether their children wear masks in classrooms. Most Florida districts have left the question of masks optional.

But in defiance of the governor’s order, school districts in Sarasota and Leon counties in recent days joined Hillsborough, Alachua, Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties in requiring students to wear masks.

Then on Tuesday, Orange County Public Schools did likewise, approving a 60-day mask mandate for everyone from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

Aggressive questioning

Much of Wednesday’s testimony came from defense witnesses Jay Bhattacharya, a Stanford University professor and researcher, and Jacob Oliva, the state chancellor of public schools. Plaintiffs’ attorneys aggressively cross-examined them at length.

Attorney Charles Gallagher questioned Bhattacharya — a supporter of DeSantis’ policy on parental choice on masks — for about an hour on, among other things, his familiarity with Florida COVID-19 data, his knowledge of various studies, whether he has ever worn a mask and whether his children have ever worn masks.

Gallagher asked Bhattacharya at what point he would recommend masking children in schools. He had testified that he’s aware of no reliable studies that show masks effective against COVID-19.

“If there’s evidence that it’s very, very effective in stopping disease spread … if there’s evidence that children can effectively wear masks with minimal cost to them all day long, then, yeah, then I would recommend it,” Bhattacharya replied.

Bhattacharya stands among the authors of the so-called Great Barrington Declaration, which last October called for “the young and healthy” to “resume normal activity in order to incur herd immunity and thereby protect those vulnerable to severe illness,” according to the American Institute for Economic Research, where it was drafted.

Gallagher pointed out to Bhattacharya that people and groups including the World Health Organization had criticized the study.

Gallagher also asked Bhattacharya what he considered “an acceptable death rate” for children from COVID-19.

“I reject the premise of the question,” Bhattacharya replied. “The question is not what’s an acceptable death rate. The question is what are the tradeoffs implicit.

“For instance, restrictions or reductions in schooling have long-term negative consequences on the health and longevity of children over their entire lifetime. So it’s a question of tradeoffs, not a question of what’s the acceptable level. I reject the premise of your question, sir.”

Gallagher replied, “In that case, what’s an unacceptable death rate for children.”

“I’m sorry. I still reject the premise of your question,” Bhattacharya said. “I don’t understand. There’s no number I can give you that would be the right number, because your question makes no sense in the context of how policy should be done.”

'Strain on the learning process'

For much of the afternoon, the defense questioned and the plaintiffs cross-examined Oliva, the state chancellor of public schools. Oliva told the court that masks on students and teachers “put a strain on the learning process.”

Asked by defense attorney Jared Burns about the importance of giving parents options, Oliva said: "When parents have a seat at the table working with educational experts, we know we are going to see greater lines of success. Students are being successful. We’re seeing achievement scores go up, and our biggest metric that we monitor is graduation rates, and that’s because we include families and give them options.”

In cross examination, plaintiffs’ attorney Craig Whisenhunt pressed Oliva on several issues, including whether he was aware that Florida stands among leading states in the COVID-19 surge.

“I don’t monitor that,” Oliva replied. “I’m an educational practitioner, and that’s what my focus is on.”

In rebuttal to testimony from Phattacharya, plaintiffs recalled Dr. Tony Kriseman, a pediatric pulmonologist who testified Tuesday in support of masks in schools.

Plaintiffs attorney Joshua Sheridan asked Kriseman if he was aware of any organization recommending non-compliance with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols on COVID-19.

“Other than the State of Florida?” Kriseman asked.

“Sure,” Sheridan said.

“No, I’m not.”

Kriseman at one point referred to Tuesday testimony from Bhattacharya, who said “that a variant circulating in the population poses little additional risk of hospital overcrowding or excess mortality."

“I and many of my colleagues work in hospitals, and I cannot let that statement stand,” Kriseman added. “Our hospitals are bursting at the seams, our staffs burned out. Our nurses want to quit. Our ERs are full. We’re weary. And we need a multi-layered approach to … dampening down this pandemic.”