Ready, set, stay.

Whether the state Department of Education and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran can continue to impose financial penalties on school districts that enact mask mandates is in limbo while the legal battle over student mask requirements persists.

Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper last week dealt a legal blow to Gov. Ron DeSantis and state education officials in a high-profile lawsuit challenging the governor’s July 30 executive order seeking to bar local school districts from requiring students to wear masks in class. As part of an Aug. 27 verbal ruling, Cooper issued an injunction blocking the state Department of Education from enforcing DeSantis’ order.

The department this week continued efforts to withhold funding to districts in an amount equal to the monthly salaries of school board members who voted to enact mask mandates. Education officials on Monday said that they began withholding funds from districts a day before Cooper’s verbal ruling, arguing that the judge’s written decision had not yet been published.

But on Thursday, Cooper issued a written ruling that said DeSantis overstepped his constitutional authority when he issued the executive order.

“The law of Florida does not permit the defendants to punish school boards, its members, or officials for adopting face mask mandates with no parental opt-outs if the schools boards have been denied their due process rights under the Parents’ Bill of Rights to show that this policy is reasonable and meets the requirements of the statute,” Cooper wrote, citing a new state law that deals with parents’ right to control health and educational decisions for their children.

Attorneys representing DeSantis’ administration quickly filed an appeal Thursday, putting on hold Cooper’s ruling against the state.

But that didn’t slow down the legal wrangling.

Attorneys for parents who challenged the executive order fired back about four hours later by filing a motion requesting that Cooper issue an order vacating the automatic stay. If the request is granted, that could keep his ruling in effect during the appeal.

“If the automatic stay remains in place, plaintiffs will continue to face the increased risk of the delta variant infection, local schools boards will continue to face penalties from defendants from their (state officials’) enforcement of the executive order, and local school boards will be faced with the choice of being subject to penalties issued by defendants or protecting plaintiffs, students and school staff by having the ability to issue mandatory mask mandates without parental opt-out,” the motion said.

DeSantis on Wednesday expressed confidence that the 1st District Court of Appeal, which is stacked with judges appointed by Republican governors, will side with him. The governor said Cooper’s ruling is “very vulnerable” to being overturned.

By Thursday, 13 school districts --- representing more than half of the state’s students --- had moved forward with student mask mandates that allow exceptions only when parents present doctors’ notes.

SHOW ME THE DATA

While DeSantis defends his executive order on masks in court, a legal battle over the state Department of Health’s COVID-19 data reporting is brewing.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, and the Florida Center for Government Accountability filed a lawsuit on Monday alleging the health department has violated public-records laws by refusing to provide detailed data about the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state agency until early June posted on its website daily reports that provided extensive data about issues such as cases and deaths, with information also broken down by county. But DeSantis’ administration halted the daily reports in June and shifted to posting weekly information that is far less detailed.

Smith submitted a written request July 23 to the Orange County Health Department for daily information about COVID-19 cases, positivity rates, hospitalizations, deaths and vaccinations.

Drew Love, legislative director for the Florida Department of Health, responded Aug. 9 and said the information Smith had requested was “considered confidential and exempt from public disclosure” under a state law and state rules.

The lawsuit disputed that the requested records are exempt from public release. The records do not include information identifying individual patients.

“The purpose of this action is to obtain critical records that the department previously published daily on its website so that the public will have knowledge of and the ability to scrutinize their government’s response to the rampaging virus. This is the paramount goal of open government laws,” the lawsuit said.

TAKE IT UP AT THE BALLOT BOX

DeSantis, meanwhile, scored a significant victory this week in other pandemic-related litigation.

Leon County Circuit Judge Layne Smith on Monday upheld a decision by DeSantis’ administration to cut off federal unemployment money for tens of thousands of Floridians in June, rejecting arguments that the move violated state law.

In an 18-page decision, Smith said DeSantis had the legal right to halt $300-a-week payments to Floridians from what is known as the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, or FPUC, program. DeSantis said stopping the payments was aimed at helping spur people to return to the workforce.

“This decision belongs solely to the state’s chief executive,” Smith wrote. “Ultimately, Governor DeSantis’ strategy to promote reemployment by ending Florida’s participation in the FPUC program is a political issue that the voters can approve or reject at the ballot box.”

The federal unemployment money stemmed from the stimulus law known as the CARES Act. Florida jobless people were able to receive $300 a week in federal money on top of the state’s maximum $275 a week in unemployment benefits.

STORY OF THE WEEK: An appeal filed Thursday by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration put on hold a Leon County circuit judge’s ruling against the state in a battle over school mask mandates, but attorneys for a group of parents quickly requested that the ruling be allowed to take effect.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “By passing the Parents’ Bill of Rights, the Florida Legislature necessarily recognized the importance of parental rights. But it also recognized that parents’ rights are not immune to some reasonable limitation depending upon safety and reasonableness and compelling state need regarding health care or condition of the child.” --- Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper