A group of parents in Utah are suing the state over its ban on school districts from adopting their own mask mandates – which they say leaves children “unnecessarily unprotected and at risk” of COVID-19 in the city. classroom.
In the lawsuit filed on Monday, the parents are asking a judge to immediately overturn the ban. They fear that with most Utah schools now open for the fall, the virus will spread rapidly among unmasked and unvaccinated students, especially those at higher risk of serious illness.
“At the root of it all, I am a scared mother with no other options at this point,” said Ashley Weitz, plaintiff in the case.
The only thing they say would allow their children to return to classrooms safely, universal masking, has been blocked by the state. Now, this is the first court challenge to come since Utah instituted the law this spring.
The 3rd District Court filing includes 12 parents representing 15 students from Salt Lake County school districts. Almost all children either have a health condition that makes them more susceptible to severe coronavirus infection or a learning disability that makes it difficult to stay home to learn. Some have both.
Almost all are under 12 and are not yet eligible for the vaccine.
Weitz’s child, Ezra, suffers from acute asthma, for which he was hospitalized. She fears that sending the 7-year-old to school in Salt Lake City, where he would be surrounded by children not required to wear masks, may mean some illness. But not sending him means he won’t get the special resources he depends on for his education.
He’s been learning online since Utah schools closed for the pandemic in March 2020. And it hasn’t been easy, Weitz said.
She feels her child is being discriminated against because of his disability and cannot access the education he is guaranteed under the Utah Constitution. This is the main argument of the trial.
“We believe the law is unfair and unconstitutional,” Greg Skordas, the lawyer representing the families, said at a press conference Monday. “Utah’s constitution guarantees our children an education. It is unimpeded.
He believes the state cannot view online education as a fair alternative. On the one hand, it is not offered by all districts. And it’s not viable for all students, especially those who need in-person services like Ezra.
Last year, all Utah K-12 schools were under mask mandate. And the spread of the virus in classrooms was quite limited.
Ezra was seated in the front row of the press conference wearing a black mask, wearing sparkly boots and sunglasses that make him feel brave. “I like masks because they protect me,” he said. “And the vaccines hurt a lot less than my blood tests.”
Her mother added: “It is really frustrating that it is the most vulnerable children who are still the most disturbed.”
What the law says
Parents say the highly contagious delta variant – which was not as prevalent when the legislature passed the law – added to their concerns. They are supported by many doctors in Utah.
They want heads of state to support the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that all students wear masks to limit the spread; When more people have their faces covered, according to the federal ministry, infection rates go down.
Lawsuit names Utah Governor Spencer Cox, Lieutenant Governor Deidre Henderson and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes as responsible for upholding what plaintiffs see as an unconstitutional mask warrant ban that leaves their children behind in danger. Cox signed the so-called “endgame” bill in May.
His office did not respond to a request for comment on Monday. A spokesperson for Reyes declined to comment.
In Law HB1007, the Republican-dominated Utah legislature laid out its plan for an end to the pandemic and explicitly prohibited school districts from creating mask requirements for the 2021-2022 school year.
Instead, under the accompanying SB195, any mandate for face covering in schools must come from a recommendation from a county health department, with the local county governing body having the power to make them. repeal.
The only district that has passed the approved process is the Grand County School District in southeast Utah, which began with a 30-day mask tenure for Kindergarten to Week 6 students last week. . Summit County has said it will require masks for children in elementary classrooms if infection rates exceed 2%.
The Salt Lake County Department of Health had previously attempted to impose a mask requirement for schools in the county. But the order, issued by its director of health, Dr Angela Dunn, was rejected earlier this month by county council on the basis of parties, with Republicans against.
Since then, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has put in place an emergency order of masks in schools across the city for students in Kindergarten to Grade 12. It is not known if this will be allowed; some lawmakers have already discussed his challenge. The legislature has also given itself the power to veto any county mask mandate for schools.
In the lawsuit, the parents demand that the County Council vote be overturned and that Dr. Dunn’s mask order be upheld. They say health departments and school districts – not county or state governments – should have the power to rule over masks.
“Take these roadblocks away and leave the schools, leave the health department, let those who really know what makes a safe environment make the decisions,” Skordas said.
A parent carried a sign saying, “I am not an expert. Dr Angela Dunn is. Listen to the expert.
Hope for an accelerated hearing
Jessica Pyper, a complainant in the case, has two children. One is attending a charter in Kearns and the other is going to preschool in the Jordan School District this fall. She plans to keep the two at home.
His eldest son, who is 10, suffers from type 1 diabetes, which makes him vulnerable to disease. Her youngest son, who is 3, needs speech therapy. But if she sends her youngest son to school for it, he could bring the virus back to his eldest son.
Instead, Pyper said she made the difficult choice of making her youngest son wait to go to school while her eldest son did “home and hospital” to get an education. Its charter does not offer an online option this year.
“We are stuck in this space where we have to keep our children at home again because no one is doing anything to protect them,” she said. “But telling them to keep staying at home is really not the answer. It is not fair to them.
Other parents in the trial have children with immune deficiencies. We have a chronic autoinflammatory disease. Another suffers from cerebral palsy. Some have transferred their children to private schools where masking can be applied. But they say, with the costs, it’s not doable for everyone.
Parents – many of whom are members of the Popular Concerned Coalition which fights for universal face coverings in the classroom – say the state has made their already vulnerable children even more vulnerable by banning school districts from adopting blankets. mask warrants.
Skordas also notes in the lawsuit that the Utah Board of Education previously required that all students be vaccinated against smallpox before being allowed to attend public schools. He says requiring masks in the midst of a pandemic is less invasive but just as appropriate.
Parents and lawyer are calling for an expedited hearing on the case, with all schools in session in the state by Tuesday.
“We have to make this decision now,” Skordas said.
The lawyer added that parents start at the state level and can decide to file a case in federal court later, if necessary. This complaint, he noted, would focus on violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Parents in Texas are currently suing their governor with this argument.
The US Department of Education has also sent letters to every state with a mask warrant ban, including Utah, urging them to repeal it. Cox responded by standing up to the law in Utah.
The issue of masks in classrooms has divided the state and the country. Here there have been groups of parents at political war, with the other side in favor of banning schools from demanding masks and “allowing freedom”.
Chris Phillips, co-founder of Concerned Coalition, however said Monday: “Our enemy is not other parents. They are not the children of other parents. It is the disease.
Several children danced around the room during the press conference on Monday. All wore masks.