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San Diego County parent group sues state in effort to end school mask mandate

People hold signs protesting the requirement of face masks in schools.
People hold signs protesting the requirement of face masks in schools, among them Sharon McKeeman (left), founder of Let Them Breathe.
(Kristian Carreon)

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A San Diego County-based parents group is suing the state seeking to end California’s mask mandate for schools.

In its lawsuit filed July 22, the Let Them Breathe group argued that masks can harm children’s social, mental and physical health and that masks should be a choice for families, not a requirement.

“We’re seeing kids be more anxious, more depressed, have difficulty engaging in their education when they’re unable to see each others’ faces, share smiles and just start getting back to life with some type of normalcy,” Sharon McKeeman, a Carlsbad parent and founder of Let Them Breathe, said in an interview.

“The bottom line is the government should not be doing parents’ jobs. We’re the parents; we know what’s best for our children.”

Let Them Breathe has an estimated 13,000 members across California. It filed the lawsuit in San Diego County Superior Court with the statewide Reopen California Schools group. The parent leaders who filed the lawsuit also helped sue the state last school year aiming to overturn rules that prevented some schools from being open while COVID-19 transmission was high.

California currently requires all adults and students to wear masks indoors in K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. People can take off their masks when outdoors, and modifications or exceptions can be made on a case-by-case basis for people with medical conditions.

The state said it is requiring masks in schools because COVID rates, while much lower than before most people could get vaccinated, are rising due to the more transmissible Delta coronavirus variant. State officials say they also want to avoid potential bullying or isolation if vaccinated students don’t wear masks while unvaccinated students do.

The California Department of Public Health said that while it doesn’t comment on litigation, “the data and science is unequivocal — there’s no substitute for in-person instruction, and California’s COVID-19 prevention strategies are the best way to fully open our schools while protecting students and staff.”

“The state’s guidance, which aligns with the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics, is how we keep our kids safe and start the school year fully in person,” according to the department.

The CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has said masks aren’t needed for fully vaccinated individuals in school, though only students 12 and older can get the COVID-19 vaccine. The American Academy of Pediatrics, on the other hand, recommends that all school staff and students 2 and older wear masks, except those with certain medical conditions.

Parents and experts who support masks say mask wearing allows schools to offer full-time, in-person instruction to all students.

Should masks continue to be required for all indoors in K-12 schools? Take our online poll here.

According to the CDC’s school guidance, masks are needed indoors when physical distancing is not possible. Many schools have said they don’t have space to invite all students back for full-time, in-person learning if they must enforce physical distancing.

Let Them Breathe parents say they don’t believe children are at high risk of getting COVID.

The CDC says children can contract and spread the coronavirus that causes the disease but are less likely than adults to show symptoms or get seriously sick from it.

McKeeman declined to say whether her age-eligible children are vaccinated, but she said she believes her children would “absolutely” be safe if they went to school without masks because they’re at lower risk of getting sick. She said that if people are worried about children spreading the coronavirus to adults, the adults have the option of getting vaccinated.

“We’re concerned the mental health impact, learning loss and social issues that are happening are more harmful to our children than the COVID statistics,” she said.

Other parents say their children are used to wearing masks by now and that they don’t bother them.

In addition to challenging the mask mandate, the lawsuit by Let Them Breathe claims the state’s school guidance is discriminatory against unvaccinated individuals.

State guidance says unvaccinated people should quarantine at home if they come in close contact with a coronavirus-positive person without a mask.

The lawsuit also is fighting the state’s guidance for asymptomatic coronavirus testing, calling it nonsensical and unjustified since most school staff members are vaccinated.

The lawsuit names as defendants Gov. Gavin Newsom, Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly, state Public Health Officer Tomás Aragón and Dr. Naomi Bardach, leader of the state’s Safe Schools for All team. ◆