ORLANDO, Fla. — Parents of 15 children filed a federal lawsuit late last week challenging Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates in schools, which they said violates federal law and endangers students with disabilities by putting them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.

The children represented in the lawsuit, including several from Orange and Volusia counties, have been diagnosed with conditions that could compromise their immune systems, such as autism, severe asthma and Down syndrome.

Restricting public school districts from making mask use mandatory while offering “no viable alternatives for students with disabilities” violates federal laws protecting people with disabilities, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in the Southern District of Florida.

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“The Governor’s most recent executive order preventing school districts from putting protections in place for students … has tied the hands of school districts from acting and made it impossible for school districts to provide students with disabilities a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment,” the complaint said.

Christina Pushaw, DeSantis’ press secretary, didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Judi and Ryan Hayes, who are named as plaintiffs, spoke at several Orange County School Board meetings this summer, urging the board to keep a mask mandate in place for the new school year.

“Listen to science, listen to the facts, protect our children. How on earth is it even a difficult decision?” Ryan Hayes said at the board’s July 27 meeting.

Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended everyone in K-12 schools wear masks in the coming school year because so many children are too young to be vaccinated and the delta variant is so contagious. They said “universal” masking is the best policy to protect everyone on campus.

Both of the Hayes’ sons studied at home last school year, an effort to protect the health of their 10-year-old, Will, who has Down syndrome, which leaves him at a higher risk of complications should he contract the coronavirus. He’s also too young to be vaccinated.

His older brother Jack is now vaccinated and his parents planned to have him return to Blankner School for eighth grade, though they are now reconsidering that decision.

But they have never felt safe sending Will to campus without a mask mandate in place.

“He can’t go back if everybody isn’t wearing masks, so I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Judi Hayes said in a recent interview.

Trying to educate Will at home, as they did for a year, was a challenge as he needs a lot of supervision and, like many young children, struggled to focus on computer-based lessons. At home, he also missed out on services children with disabilities need and should by law receive, his mother said.

“My concern is that a lot of the kids with disabilities just aren’t getting their services,” she said.

Many children missed out on important lessons last year while studying from home, she added, but those gaps are “catastrophic” for children with disabilities.

Figuring out educational options for Will as cases surge and face mask mandates are prohibited has been awful, Hayes added.

“It is a constant source of stress and aggravation and anxiety. I’m completely on edge,” she said, adding there seems to be no empathy for families like hers. “I want every child to feel safe and comfortable.”

A few school districts statewide, including those named in the lawsuit, have tried to push back on DeSantis’ order. Last Tuesday, the Alachua County school board voted in favor of a mandate for the first two weeks of class and the Broward County School Board could take similar action.

But most school districts, including those in Central Florida, have not moved to challenge DeSantis.

Both the Orange and Seminole county school districts, however, have imposed a mandate on employees, which DeSantis press secretary Pushaw said at the time is “not inconsistent with Gov. DeSantis’ position.”

In Osceola County, parents and local political candidates attended a school board meeting last Tuesday demanding its members defy DeSantis’ executive order, to no avail. Though acknowledging the order’s authority to strip school districts of state funding if they implement a mandate, the candidates who spoke to reporters ahead of the meeting said other options, like distanced learning, could be a workaround.

“Those that are disabled are those that are forgotten first. … My child is one of those children,” said Anthony Nieves, who is running for Florida House District 43, which covers parts of Osceola. His son, he added, has autism and is nonverbal.

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