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Education

Parents File Lawsuit Challenging State Law That Prohibits Schools From Mandating Masks

A photo taken at the press conference.
Jon Reed
/
KUER
Jessica Pyper, a mother of two kids, spoke at a press conference Monday. She said the choice by elected leaders to prohibit mask mandates robbed her family and other at-risk Utahns of their choice to attend school in-person.

A group of parents filed a lawsuit Monday challenging Utah’s law that bans schools from issuing mask mandates, arguing it violates their children’s right to a healthy and safe public education.

The 10 plaintiffs in the case, mostly parents with young and high-risk kids, say children with disabilities and pre-existing conditions are more susceptible to COVID-19 complications. Kids under 12 are still not eligible for the vaccine.

Without universal mask wearing, they say they’re forced to make the “untenable and unconstitutional choice between keeping their children safe or sending them to school.”

“Our kids are not pawns in the war against COVID-19,” said Chris Phillips, a parent of three kids and co-founder of Utah Concerned Coalition. “We have a common enemy. Our enemy is not other parents. Our enemy is not other parents’ kids. Our enemy is this disease. And until we figure out how to rally together to fight this thing the right way, we are not going to get rid of it.“

Utah is one of several states that have banned local school districts from issuing mask mandates, though the law does allow a local health department to do so with the approval of its county council. The issue has sharply divided parents, with some applauding the state Legislature’s efforts and others calling to overturn them.

It was especially contentious in Salt Lake County, where the council recently voted down a mask mandate for K-6 students. Parents in the audience, largely opposed to mandates, cheered the decision. In response, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendehall issued an emergency order mandating masks for K-12 students in the city, which takes effect when schools there start on Tuesday.

Greg Skordas, the attorney representing the parents, said he is not seeking any monetary damages in the suit, just the ability for local school boards to make their own decisions. He said he doesn’t anticipate a long, drawn out legal battle, but depending on what happens with the case, he may also file a federal complaint on grounds the state law violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“We need to get this decided right away,” Skordas said. “It's sad we couldn't have got this filed earlier. But things have happened, especially here in Salt Lake County, that really drove home the point that without a lawsuit like this, nothing is going to get done. And we were going to have another year of kids who need to be in school, not being in school.”

Utah is also facing potential investigations from the federal government. Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education Miguel Cardona said actions to block school districts from adopting safety measures could amount to civil rights violations and prevent schools from safely reopening, which federal relief funds were designed to assist.

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