Easttown School District is facing a lawsuit claiming the school system’s mask mandate violates students’ constitutional rights. The Obermayer, Rebmann, Maxwell, & Hippel filed an injunction last week against the district.
In late August, the district adopted a new COVID-19 mitigation plan requiring students to wear masks unless they have a medical or religious exemption. If a student chooses not to wear a mask, they will be subject to weekly testing. Weekly testing would be conducted regardless of whether an unmasked student has any symptoms or has come into close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
The injunction says school districts don’t have that authority.
The mandate came shortly before another from the State Department of Health. “On August 31, 2021, the Secretary of Health issued an Order requiring students to wear masks in school ‘to prevent and control the spread of disease’ and ‘to protect the ability of our schools to continue to educate our children, and of our children to receive in-person instruction, in the safest environment possible.’”
While the order from the state has no religious exemption for mask-wearing, the district’s mandate does. However, parents say they cannot agree to the terms of the religious exemption. Parents also say the medical exemption requires a blanket waiver of their children’s Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) rights, which they also don’t agree with.
Finally, the injunction claims wearing unapproved masks can cause respiratory harm, even though that has been widely disputed.
“Children in the Tredyffrin-Easttown School District who are unable to wear face coverings/masks at school are being targeted, segregated and, and denied a public school education by the school. This is a direct violation of our children’s First Amendment rights,” the parents say on their Go Fund Me page.
In a statement to Kaiser Health News, Chief Virologist at Texas A&M University’s Global Health Research Complex Benjamin Neuman said, “A mask ‘will add some resistance to the breathing process, meaning it may feel like it takes a bit more work to take a breath, but it won’t materially change the makeup of air that comes through the mask.’”
A study published in June by the journal JAMA Pediatrics claimed mask-wearing could adversely affect children because of a buildup of carbon dioxide. However, that study was retracted soon after publication for numerous scientific methodology concerns.
Following the new mandate from the state, Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam said, “The reality we are living in now is much different than it was just a month ago. With case counts increasing, the situation has reached the point that we need to take this action to protect our children, teachers, and staff.”
For proponents of the mask mandate, legal precedent is working in their favor. A Supreme Court decision dating back to 1905 says “the board of health of a city or town, if, in its opinion, it is necessary for the public health or safety, shall require and enforce the vaccination and revaccination of all the inhabitants thereof, and shall provide them with the means of free vaccination.” Even though this decision refers more specifically to vaccinations, it could be just as applicable to something like a mask mandate.
In a letter to parents, Tredyffrin-Easttown School District Superintendent Dr. Richard Gusick said, “I thank those of you who have been writing and calling to share ideas and vision about the upcoming school year. As you can imagine, there is a wide range of opinions in our community, and many of those thoughts are in direct conflict with each other. We do not wish to diminish any particular point of view. We continue to follow guidance from health authorities with the goal of uninterrupted, in-person instruction during the 2021-2022 school year.”
Meanwhile, parents and students in other school districts have filed similar lawsuits. A new suit was filed in Parkland, Central Bucks, Pennsbury, and several other Pennsylvania school districts to overturn the statewide school mask mandate. Another suit was filed by state Sen. Jake Corman (R- Mifflin) as a private citizen and concerned parent.