A judge Friday rejected challenges to California’s statewide requirement that students and staff wear face masks indoors at schools to prevent spread of COVID-19, leaving it to the governor to decide when it’s safe to lift the mandate.
The judge heard arguments earlier in the week on a lawsuit brought in July by two parent groups, Reopen California Schools and Let Them Breathe, arguing the mask requirement was not based on scientific evidence of need and that the face coverings are physically and mentally harmful to kids.
San Diego County Superior Court Judge Cynthia A. Freeland disagreed, and granted a demurrer without leave to amend sought by the state, effectively putting an end to the lawsuit.
“While there is a fundamental right to an education, courts routinely have permitted the exclusion of students who refuse to comply with public health and safety measures designed to prevent the spread of communicable diseases, measures far more invasive than a mask mandate,” Freeland wrote.
Jonathan Zachreson, founder of Reopen California Schools, said “we will continue to fight the arbitrary and harmful mask guidance and are currently exploring our various legal options.”
California was the first state in the country to require students returning to schools this fall to wear masks indoors, and is among 15 states that have school mask mandates, according to the data tracking site Burbio, which says 10 states have banned mask requirements, though all but one in Utah has been overturned.
The California Department of Public Health had said the mask requirement aligns with recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “by layering multiple other prevention strategies” such as face masks when students cannot be adequately separated in classrooms.
“Many of California’s school facilities can’t fully accommodate physical distancing,” the department said in a statement July 13. “California will continue to require that masks be worn indoors in school settings, which also will ensure that all kids are treated the same.”
The complaint argued that the state’s mask mandate for all students regardless of local infection rates or whether they are vaccinated is arbitrary, not based on scientific evidence, harmful to students and impedes their education. It further alleges that the state’s guidance on testing students who aren’t showing symptoms of COVID-19, and quarantining to contain outbreaks, are unnecessary and burdensome.
Though the mask requirement was issued before federal regulators this month authorized COVID-19 vaccines for children ages 5-11, state officials haven’t indicated when masks might no longer be needed in schools, citing fears of rising cases in California and much the country in recent weeks.
Freeland ruled that because the state had described its guidance on testing for the virus in schools and quarantining as recommendations which school districts are free to use at their discretion, the state could not be sued over them.
As for the mask mandate, Freeland rejected the parent groups’ contention that Gov. Gavin Newsom had abused his authority under a declared state of emergency due to the pandemic to make such a requirement, arguing it would be improper for the court to second-guess their judgment.
The parent groups said a silver lining was that the ruling clarifies that schools aren’t required to remove students from campus for not wearing a mask and are free to reject the state’s testing and quarantining guidelines.
“While it’s unfortunate school masking was not allowed to be put on trial, it appears schools are free to enforce the mask mandate anyway they see fit and are not required to removed kids from the classroom for not wearing a mask,” said Sharon McKeeman, founder of Let Them Breathe.
Zachreson added that “based on the state’s concession and the judge’s ruling, it is crystal clear California’s quarantine and testing protocols are only recommended and completely optional.”
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