MIAMI, Fla. — Claiming discrimination against students with disabilities, parents and students in four Tampa Bay and Central Florida counties have joined in a lawsuit that challenges Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order banning Florida school districts from requiring students to wear masks.

What You Need To Know

  • 27 plaintiffs listed in a suit challenging DeSantis' order banning school mask requirements 

  • The lawsuit claims discrimination and an 'illegal barrier' for students with disabilities

  • Suit suggests governor's order prevents them from returning safety to school, integrating

The lawsuit says children with disabilities remain at elevated risk from COVID-19 and suggests that DeSantis' order prevents them from safely returning to school and integrating with other students.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, lists 27 plaintiffs, including five in Hillsborough County, four in Pasco County, two in Orange County and two in Volusia County. The suit identifies many plaintiffs as parents of children with disabilities and others as students with disabilities.

It also names plaintiffs in Broward, Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Alachua counties.

The lawsuit alleges that through his executive order, DeSantis “has placed an illegal barrier for students with disabilities which is preventing our state’s most vulnerable students from returning to public schools.”

“Students with disabilities who are unable to safely return to brick-and-mortar schools because of continued health concerns, are being excluded from the public school system in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act,” the lawsuit alleges.

Among 12 defendants, the suit names DeSantis, the Florida Department of Education, the Orange County School Board, the Hillsborough County School Board, the Pasco County School Board and the Volusia County School Board.

Like all but a few in Florida, those school boards have declared masks optional for students this coming school year, in line with the DeSantis order. But on Friday, Orange County Public Schools said it would require masks but allow parents to opt out of the requirement, in line with a new Florida Department of Health ruling.

The lawsuit comes as schools throughout Florida prepare to open next week and as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to surge throughout the state.

The lawsuit cites the governor’s threat to withhold state funding from non-compliant school boards. It says DeSantis lacks the authority to make such threats to districts that are protecting students with disabilities’ “health and rights to be in an integrated learning environment.” The suit also notes what it calls the governor’s “refusal to extend funding for distance learning,” which it contends has helped to limit school districts’ ability to act.

Children with disabilities “are entitled to learn and interact with all other children, receive the same education as all other children, and do so while being safe and returning home as safe and healthy as possible,” the lawsuit states.

It also says children of plaintiffs stand “at higher risk for severe illness or death due to COVID-19 and will not go to public school because of the higher risk of severe illness or death.”

“By refusing to allow school districts to implement mask mandates, Governor DeSantis has placed an illegal barrier for students with disabilities which is preventing our state’s most vulnerable students from returning to public schools,” the suit says.