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San Diego parent group sues state to end school mask mandate

People hold signs protesting against the requirement of face masks in schools
People hold signs protesting against the requirement of face masks in schools at the Vista Unified School District on Thursday, July 22, 2021. Sharon McKeeman, left, is the founder of Let Them Breathe.
(Kristian Carreon / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Some parents argue masks harm students and should be a choice; others say masks prevent COVID spread and keep schools open

A San Diego-based parent group sued the state Thursday seeking to end California’s mask mandate for schools.

The Let Them Breathe group argued that masks hurt children’s social, mental and physical health. It said 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,” said Sharon McKeeman, a Carlsbad parent and founder of Let Them Breathe, 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 Thursday’s lawsuit also helped sue the state last school year to overturn rules that prevented some, but not all, schools from being open while COVID 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 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.”

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

Parents and experts who support masks point out that mask wearing is what allows schools to offer full-time, in-person instruction to all students.

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.

“If we want 30-plus kids packed into a classroom, and that means probably less distancing between them, then the mask has to be the compromise,” said Steve Hill, whose fifth-grade daughter attends a San Marcos school. “Right now the mask is the compromise that gets us one step closer back to this normalcy that everybody wants.”

McKeeman, who has four children in the Carlsbad Unified School District, said she founded Let Them Breathe in late March because she said masks were harming her children.

One of her sons has ADHD, and wearing a mask distracts him, which makes it difficult to engage with others and process what his teacher is saying, she said. Another son who is medically unable to wear a mask feels isolated and singled out from his peers, she said, because he’s one of a few without a mask. He doesn’t want to go back to school this fall, she said.

Her other son, who’s in high school, plays sports and has struggled to get enough fresh air when he wears a mask, she said.

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

The CDC says children can contract and spread the coronavirus, but they 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 COVID 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; the masks don’t bother them.

Danielle Marquez, whose son will attend El Capitan High School in the Grossmont Union High School District this fall, said he has had to wear masks to his volleyball tournaments but he hasn’t had any problems.

“I don’t have an issue with the masks. I mean, they’ve been wearing it for over a year or more,” Marquez said. “We’ll be real, it’s not necessarily the most comfortable thing to wear 24 hours a day, but you know they’re not suffering for it.”

Some parents, including Marquez and Hill, said masking is a minimal effort that helps keep others safe.

“Kids are pretty resilient. I would like to see some more adults be a little more resilient and look out for the greater good a little bit more,” Hill said. “The greater public health interest should outweigh everything here.”

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 COVID-positive person without a mask.

The lawsuit also is fighting the state’s guidance for asymptomatic COVID testing, calling it nonsensical and unjustified, since most school staff 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, the state’s Safe Schools for All team lead.


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