Judge rules in favor of Cobb County School District in mask lawsuit

coronavirus imposed on Cobb County School District signagePhoto by Larry Johnson composited with public domain image from the CDC (created by LFJ)

By Rebecca Gaunt

A judge in U.S. District Court has ruled on the side of the Cobb County School District in a lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction that would have required the district to put a mask mandate and other CDC COVID-19 guidelines in place so that students with disabilities and medical conditions could attend school in person.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Goodmark Law Firm, and the Law Office of Allison B. Vrolijk filed the lawsuit on behalf of four students with disabilities and medical issues that prevent them from attending school safely in person without masks and other layered mitigation strategies in place. The lawsuit alleges that they are being denied an appropriate education in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In his order, Chief Judge Timothy Batten wrote that the argument “falls well short of the high bar required for injunctive relief.”

“Plaintiffs essentially ask this Court to second-guess Defendants’ operational decision making and wrest from Defendants’ control the authority to decide how to best protect students’ health. The Court finds that Defendants have made an informed choice that is neither arbitrary nor unreasonable, and declines Plaintiffs’ invitation to usurp this function of the executive branch,” Batten wrote.

Previous court filings

Earlier this week the district filed its response to the lawsuit which said, “This Court should reject Plaintiffs’ invitation to weigh in on matters of local politics by second-guessing the wisdom of CCSD’s COVID-19 mask policy.”

The district went on to say the plaintiffs could not “show irreparable harm because they are simply complaining about not receiving their preferred educational services – not a deprivation to access to education altogether.”

According to a declaration by John Floresta, the chief strategy and accountability officer for CCSD, the district is taking 50 distinct actions to mitigate the risk of COVID-19. Examples include:strongly recommending and providing masks, enhanced cleaning and strict disinfection protocols, social and emotional support, vaccination events and education and education, dissemination and reinforcement of safety measures.

The district argued that local data does not support mask wearing and its position is supported by Dr. Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University. Bhattacharya has stated that “covering the lower half of the face of both teacher and pupil reduces the ability to communicate” and that children wearing masks experience higher rates of depression and anxiety.

Additionally, the district said students with disabilities, who were unable to wear masks, were unable to attend last year under the mask mandate, and would be unable to continue attending if it were reinstated.

However, there were students who attended school in person last year that were accommodated for their inability to wear a mask.

CDC guidelines offer an exemption for people who cannot wear a mask due to disability.

The SPLC also filed a response this week which cites the district’s own argument from April in favor of masks and following the CDC guidelines when it was sued by parents opposed to last year’s mask mandate.

At the time, the district relied on Dr. Janet Memark, director of Cobb and Douglas Public Health, and Melanie Bales, the district’s nursing supervisor, to argue the “overwhelming medical evidence that wearing masks is an important, effective tool in preventing and reducing the spread of COVID-19.”

“This is a matter of science and public health, not political debate. While the District claims that it has relied on verified public health data and scientific guidance to inform its recent decisions, it only cites a widely discredited pseudoscientist, whose opinions have been denounced by the public health and medical community” the attorneys wrote in the document, referencing a declaration from Dr. Amber Schmidtke, a public health microbiologist.

The families’ attorney filed additional documents in support of their case, including a declaration by a Cobb County special education teacher who said she believes CCSD has “abdicated their leadership responsibilities.”

According to the teacher, the district did not distribute any formal protocols and she was told that educators could not speak about masks. She also said there has been no encouragement of mask wearing, no extra ventilation, and that many teachers have purchased MERV-13 air filters with their own money. She has not witnessed any enhanced cleaning procedures, nor does she believe the district is accurately reporting the number of cases or exposures.

Emails sent by board member David Banks discouraging vaccination were also submitted to the court.

To read the documents:

Click here for the lawsuit filed by the SPLC

Click here for the response by the Cobb County School District

Click here for the response by the SPLC

Rebecca Gaunt earned a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in education from Oglethorpe University. After teaching elementary school for several years, she returned to writing. She lives in Marietta with her husband, son, two cats, and a dog. In her spare time, she loves to read, binge Netflix and travel.