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Students near a school bus wearing medical masks.

Lawsuits Filed Over Bans on Mask Mandates

On Sunday, as kids across Bexar County in Texas were picking out their first day of school outfits and packing their backpacks, the Texas Supreme Court struck down a restraining order that had banned mask mandates in schools, a ban created by an executive order issued by Texas Governor Greg Abbott.

However, on Monday, in the 57th Civil District Court, a judge granted a temporary injunction that once again prevented the enforcement of Abbott’s executive order. 

The back-and-forth legal actions come as the number of ICU beds available in the state of 29-million dropped to only 322 beds due to the rising numbers of COVID-19 patients. And, on Tuesday, Gov. Abbott announced that he had contracted COVID-19 despite being vaccinated. 

Texas is not alone. Although the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has long said face coverings are critical in preventing transmission of the virus, the idea of requiring people to wear masks continues to draw strong opposition, in particular from Republican leaders. Several other red states, including Florida, Arizona, Oklahoma and Arkansas, also have legal battles where parents, community leaders and teachers are pitted against their governors.

Florida

While the CDC reported that between Aug. 9 and Aug. 13, 282 people died of COVID-19 across the state and more than 15,000 people were admitted to Florida hospitals with confirmed cases, Gov. Ron DeSantis battled several groups in court over mask mandates, including one by parents from seven different Florida counties. That lawsuit alleges DeSantis’s July 30 executive order that banned mask mandates “wrongfully assumes that state authorities can better determine the local health risks and educational needs of students and teachers.’’ 

In response, on Monday, DeSantis’s lawyers filed papers in Tallahassee state court asking a judge to throw out the lawsuit. The filing states that he, as the “…public official duly elected by the majority of the citizens of the state of Florida, was entrusted with the sole authority to make such statewide policy determinations — not the parent plaintiffs, and not a court.’’

While Judge John C. Cooper of Florida’s second judicial circuit is planning on hearing case arguments today, COVID-19 breakouts continue to be rampant throughout Florida. 

Data for Florida Schools include the following:

As of Wednesday in Hillsborough County, 10,384 students were either quarantined or isolated, including 338 staff members. The Hillsborough County School Board held an emergency meeting on Wednesday regarding masks and the rising COVID-19 numbers. The board voted that all staff and students must wear a mask for at least 30 days. A doctor’s note is now required rather than a parent signing an opt-out form for those not wearing a mask. 

In Manatee County, during the first week of school, COVID-19 tests came back positive for 177 students and employees. 

In Palm Beach County, 440 students were forced to quarantine just two days into the 2021-2022 school year. Michael Burke, the Palm Beach School District Superintendent, spoke out against the mask opt-out situation. “The governor has got to take responsibility for establishing the ground rules we’re operating under,’’ he said.

Arizona

On Aug. 12, several education advocacy groups, including the Arizona School Boards Association, the Children’s Action Alliance, the Arizona Education Association, the Arizona Advocacy Network and 12 individual Arizona residents, joined forces filing a lawsuit against the state.

The action stems from events in June when, as part of a state budget proposal, the state legislature passed a law banning mandates in schools. While the new law is set to go into effect on Sept. 29, lawmakers included a clause to make it retroactive, creating both confusion and frustration for parents, teachers and schools. 

In a statement released on Aug. 4, Gov. Doug Ducey said school personnel and administrators who were moving to implement mask mandates despite the statewide ban before Sept. 29 seemed to be aiming to take advantage of a “perceived loophole.’’

But the plaintiffs in the case allege the ban pushed by the governor was passed illegally. “This is an action seeking to enjoin unconstitutional legislation that undermines our representative democracy and to uphold the fundamental right of Arizona’s public schoolchildren,” the lawsuit states.

The CDC reported 3,194 newly reported COVID-19 cases and 23 newly reported deaths in Arizona between Aug. 8 and Aug. 13.

Oklahoma

Earlier this year, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed Senate Bill 658, prohibiting public schools, technology centers, and colleges and universities from requiring masks (as well as vaccines) unless the state has declared an emergency. He has recently stressed that he sees no reason for a new emergency declaration that would allow schools to issue mask mandates. 

On August 11, the Tulsa school board voted to allow its attorneys to challenge the state’s law, and the Santa Fe South public charter school in Oklahoma City issued an indoor mask mandate.

On Aug. 12, the same day the Arizona Health Department reported the number of virus-related hospitalizations in Oklahoma neared 1,300, a number not seen since early 2021, a group of parents along with the Oklahoma State Medical Association filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the state law banning mask requirements in public schools.

After the suit was filed, Oklahoma State Medical Association President Dr. Mary Clarke said in a released statement that science shows both vaccinations and masks are important to stop the spread of the virus.

“As we are experiencing record numbers of children infected by the Delta variant and hospitals are stretched to capacity, we must do everything we can to keep Oklahoma’s children safe,” Clarke said. “This is not a political stance; it is about public health and common sense. If schools can send students home for a lice infection, they should have the latitude and ability to issue a mask mandate.” 

Arkansas

On Aug. 5, Judge Tim Fox of Pulaski County Circuit Court temporarily blocked the state from enforcing its ban on mask mandates that had been put into effect last spring by Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Fox ruled the ban violated the state’s constitution. The ban on masks is being challenged by two lawsuits, including one by an east Arkansas school district in which more than 900 individuals were forced to quarantine due to an outbreak. 

Ironically, Hutchinson himself now would like to see the ban on mandates removed. Several weeks ago, as COVID-19 cases rose, he called for the legislature to return for a special session to remove the ban. He told the media, “Local school districts should make the call, and they should have more options to make sure that their school is a safe environment during a very challenging time for education.”

Although the legislators held the special session, they upheld the ban.