Judge dismisses lawsuit challenging Newsom’s school mask rules
A San Diego County judge dismissed a lawsuit that challenged the state’s school mask mandate, saying Gov. Gavin Newsom has the legal authority to enforce universal masking.
Judge Cynthia A. Freeland on Friday dismissed the lawsuit filed by Let Them Breathe, a group that has led efforts opposing mandatory COVID-19 precautions in schools across the state.
In July, Let Them Breathe sued state leaders to overturn the mask mandate as well as state guidelines that call for coronavirus testing at schools and quarantines when students come into contact with someone who tests positive.
The group has argued that masks hurt children’s social, mental and physical health and that masks should be a choice for families, not a requirement.
California currently requires all students to wear masks indoors in K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. Staff members also must wear masks indoors when working with students. People can take off masks when outdoors, and modifications or exceptions can be made on a case-by-case basis for people with medical conditions.
State leaders have said they require masks in schools because studies show that masks are highly effective in reducing the spread of the coronavirus, and masks keep schools safe enough for all students to attend school in person.
In her ruling, Freeland said Newsom was acting under his emergency authority in enforcing the mask mandate. She added that the state’s guidelines for testing and quarantine are only recommendations, not requirements.
Let Them Breathe had argued that the recommendations were de facto mandates because some school districts were worried about punishment from the state if they did not follow them.
The group claimed in the suit that there’s no longer a pandemic state of emergency to justify orders such as the mask mandate. But Freeland said that the state of emergency has not ended and that Let Them Breathe was contradicting itself because the group also admitted that the pandemic is ongoing.
“Plaintiffs cannot and do not deny that COVID-19 and the health risks associated with it continue to exist,” Freeland wrote.
Freeland added that the state has a legitimate interest in protecting public health and preventing the spread of COVID-19 by mandating measures such as masks.
She noted that courts have consistently allowed schools to exclude students who refuse to comply with public health measures that are “far more invasive than a mask mandate,” such as childhood vaccinations.
Let Them Breathe disputed the effectiveness of masks in preventing the spread of the coronavirus. But Freeland said that even though the group disagrees on how effective masks are, “plaintiffs’ own allegations demonstrate that masks provide at least some level of protection against the virus,” which justifies the mask mandate.
Let Them Breathe also argued that the state was unfairly excluding students from in-person learning for refusing to wear a mask. Freeland pointed out that the state’s mask rules do not order schools to send students home for not masking; the rules leave it up to districts to decide how to enforce the mask mandate.
A spokesperson for Newsom said he is pleased with the judge’s decision.
“California’s school guidance is firmly grounded in science, and it’s been a critical component of the state’s nation-leading strategy to prevent school outbreaks and keep kids safe,” spokesperson Alex Stack said in a statement. “We remain focused on supporting schools to continue serving their students in-person and will continue to defend these common-sense measures to keep students safe.”
Sharon McKeeman, a Carlsbad parent who founded Let Them Breathe, said her group’s takeaway from Freeland’s ruling is that quarantines, testing and enforcement of the mask mandate are left up to school districts to decide.
“There’s nothing from the state saying that they have to keep kids from their in-person education when they unmask, which boils down to what we’ve been saying all along,” McKeeman said. “Students have a right to in-person education, and they can’t be excluded from that just for peacefully unmasking.”
The lawsuit named as defendants 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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