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The Douglas County School District, along with the parents of nine students with disabilities, sued the county’s new health department in federal court Wednesday over a public health order the department issued earlier this month allowing parents to get an exemption from the district’s requirement that all students and staff wear masks.
The plaintiffs claim the mask exemption, along with Douglas County’s decision to tighten the protocols around quarantining to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, violates their children’s civil rights under the American with Disabilities Act, and is “illegally forcing the parents of these students to choose between their child’s education and their health and safety.”
They are asking a judge to issue a temporary restraining order halting the county from enforcing its public health order, claiming it violates the ADA and is preempted by federal law on the matter.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, says the children on whose behalf the complaint was filed have health conditions like asthma, cystic fibrosis, epilepsy, diabetes and Down syndrome that make them more susceptible to greater illness or death should they contract COVID-19.
“Universal masking and targeted quarantining of individuals exposed to COVID-19 are reasonable and necessary accommodations to enable these students to access their public education equally to their non-disabled peers,” the suit reads.
The lawsuit claims that since the mask exemption went into effect on Oct. 9, a total of more than 4,500 students and more than 500 staff have chosen to remove their face coverings in school. Children 11 and younger are not yet eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
“The school district fears that it will not be long before the rate of mask-wearing in DCSD schools will reach the extremely low levels the school district experienced at the beginning of the school year,” the complaint reads. “This is alarming, especially when the DCHD (public health order) prohibits certain quarantining efforts that work to mitigate the spread of COVID.”
Doug Benevento, president of the Douglas County Board of Health, responded to the lawsuit Wednesday by saying “we are confident that our order strikes the appropriate balance with respect to mask mandates in our schools.”
“Our order allows for masking but provides exemptions for parents with children that would be negatively impacted from a health or psychological standpoint from a blanket mask requirement,” he said in a statement. “Our order is also more proactive than any requirement the state of Colorado currently has in place.”
Critics of masks have argued that covering the faces of children, especially young ones, has deleterious effects on their cognitive and social development — blocking vital facial and emotional cues that are key to how young children understand and learn from those around them.
And they point to the fact that the scientific data show clearly that COVID-19 largely spares young people from severe illness and death. More than 18 months into the pandemic, those 19 and younger account for just a quarter of 1% of all COVID-19 deaths in Colorado and only 3.2% of all hospitalizations, according to the state’s COVID-19 online dashboard.
Only one person under the age of 18 has died of COVID-19 in Douglas County since March 2020.
But the lawsuit says the more contagious delta variant means more young people are catching the disease and potentially transmitting it to others. It also contends that claims of harm from masks are overstated.
It cites a statement from Children’s Hospital Colorado claiming that there are “no valid reports or scientific studies linking masks to mental health problems in children or any other group.”