A group of parents and activists filed a lawsuit Tuesday to challenge the school masking requirement implemented by Maryland’s State Board of Education.
The Coalition of Maryland Parents, a limited liability company created this month that combined members of ReOpen Charles County and Baltimore County Parent and Student Coalition, filed the lawsuit in Somerset County Circuit Court after raising more than $31,000 for legal fees in a week. The lawsuit seeks to stop the state Board of Education from requiring public school students to wear face coverings in school.
“Parents throughout the state of Maryland want their rightful decision-making power returned,” said Ali Rak, the group’s co-founder, in a statement. “Children are the least at risk for adverse outcomes from a COVID-19 infection and yet, the last to see restrictions removed throughout this entire years long ordeal.”
The lawsuit takes aim at the board’s decision in December to extend an emergency regulation requiring public school students and staff to wear masks in schools until the end of the 2022 school year.
The board amended the emergency regulation to create “off ramps” allowing local school systems to end mask mandates in their district if they meet one of the following criteria: at least 80% of students and staff are fully vaccinated; 80% of a county’s population is fully vaccinated; or COVID-19 transmission rates are low or moderate for 14 consecutive days in the school district’s county.
The suit comes days after Gov. Larry Hogan pressed the State Board of Education to drop its masking policy.
The Republican wrote in a letter to the board that students are failing grades, regressing socially and struggling with mental health challenges due to school disruptions. He called on the board to rescind COVID-19 restrictions now that health trends are optimistic and 74% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated.
In its lawsuit, the coalition argued the state school board does not have the authority to subvert decisions by individual county school boards or the authority to extend statewide mandates without public input.
The state board extended its mask requirement Dec. 7, just before COVID-19 cases and hospitalization rates skyrocketed to the highest level Maryland has experienced since the start of the pandemic. State lawmakers on the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review approved the updated regulation Jan. 5.
Case rates and positivity rates have since dropped significantly from the surge driven by the more contagious omicron variant, and hospitalizations and death rates also are trending down.
A spokesperson for the State Board of Education pointed to a statement issued Friday in response to Hogan’s letter, emphasizing its monthly examination of COVID-19 metrics and the necessity of masks.
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“The face covering requirement helped keep all of our schools open through the fall — as many schools and entire districts closed around the country — and it helped our school systems weather the omicron surge and preserve in-person learning for the vast majority of our students,” State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury said in a statement.
The State Board of Education plans to meet Feb. 22 to reassess the face mask requirement with the newfound ability for children age 5 to 11 to receive the COVID-19 in mind, Choudhury said.
The coalition is attempting to stop the statewide mask mandate it says has caused significant academic, physical and emotional harm to its members’ children.
The group, which consists of 180 families from different districts, hired Anne Arundel County attorney C. Edward Hartman III to represent its case in Somerset Circuit Court, where one member of the coalition resides. Hartman has been at the forefront of numerous legal challenges to health restrictions placed on Maryland businesses and residents by local and state agencies.
Democratic governors in Delaware, New Jersey and Connecticut have said this month that they will end school mask mandates by March while allowing local school districts to decide whether students need to wear face coverings.
Hartman said Hogan’s public preference for rolling back mask requirements has been pleasing to see.
“If the State Board of Education does remove the mask mandate without us having to get an order [for them] to do so, that’s fine,” Hartman said. “We’re happy to see some other people agree with our position.”