Douglas County School District sues County Health Department over masks

Jessica gibbs
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Douglas County School District and families of students at high risk of COVID-19 are suing the new county health department in federal court, alleging a public health order allowing people to opt out of rules masking in the county violates the civil rights of students with disabilities.

The lawsuit (download here) asks courts to block enforcement of the county health ordinance, which also limited quarantines for people exposed to COVID-19.

The school district’s goal is to return to its policy requiring universal masking among people 2 years of age and older in its buildings as a COVID safety measure. This policy allows for medical exemptions from masking.

“No parent should be forced to choose between sending their children to school and risking their health, and no family should have to choose between access to learning and putting their child’s life at risk,” said District board chairman David Ray said in a statement. “The message is simple: in these very complex times, our most vulnerable children cannot be left behind. “

The lawsuit was filed today in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado.

The plaintiffs include nine families of students with conditions ranging from cystic fibrosis, autism and Down syndrome to rare genetic disorders, severe breathing problems and asthma. Some complainants have multiple conditions that put them at high risk if they contract COVID-19.

The new Douglas County Department of Health was formed this year after the county left the Tri-County Department of Health amid long-standing disagreements over COVID safety rules.

The Douglas County agency passed its first public health order on October 8. The ordinance allowed parents and guardians to remove children from masking warrants in the county with a note saying the masks were harming a student’s mental and physical health. Adults can withdraw.

The health ordinance also placed more limits on how people without symptoms of COVID could be quarantined if exposed to COVID-19.

Douglas County Board of Health Chairman Doug Benevento made a statement saying the health department is still reviewing the lawsuit. The board is “confident that our ordinance strikes an appropriate balance with regard to mask mandates in our schools” by allowing people to opt out.

He pointed out that another ongoing lawsuit by a student against the district’s masking warrant proves that “a blanket mask warrant fails to strike that balance.”

“Our order is also more proactive than any other requirement currently in place in the state of Colorado,” its statement said.

Ray told Colorado Community Media he was unaware of any legal action against the district’s cover-up warrant as of October 20.

The school board president said the district was more or less blinded by the public health order. To his knowledge, the county health board and health department did not seek input from the district when drafting the public health ordinance, he said.

“It’s a little confusing because the answer is ‘No’. We really found out like everyone else,” Ray said.

He was hopeful that the lawsuit could bring more clarity regarding the management of COVID-19 in schools. Although the new health board decree changed the masking and quarantine rules, it contradicted Tri-County Health protocols, he said.

This has caused confusion as Tri-County Health still provides public health services in Douglas County through an intergovernmental agreement with the county, including advice to the school district on who to isolate and quarantine, Ray said.

He is optimistic that the lawsuit will go in favor of the DCSD. He doubts the courts will tell the district to “just tell your population with special needs to stay home if they don’t feel safe.”

He also pointed out that masking is a temporary fix and won’t be needed forever.

The district lawsuit says that within five days, its “mask-wearing rate fell from 97% to 83%, and more than 4,500 students and more than 500 staff were exempted from wearing masks” after the adoption of the sanitary order.

The lawsuit says the DCSD fears that mask wearing will reach the “extremely low levels” recorded at the start of this school year, when the DCSD estimates that less than 25% of people masked on purpose.

“This is alarming, especially when (the public health order of the Douglas County Health Department) prohibits certain quarantine efforts that aim to mitigate the spread of COVID,” the lawsuit says.

The masking rules have been the subject of heated debate in Douglas County, with some families pushing for universal masking and others demanding personal choice. The issue arose in the race to fill four school board seats in the election that ends Nov. 2.

In the district statement today, Superintendent Corey Wise said “we deeply appreciate that there may be families who do not want their children to wear masks in school.” The lawsuit concerns the district regrouping to take the “temporary masking measure”, he said, so that every child “has the capacity to thrive in our classrooms”.

“The choice is, are we going to ignore the recommendation of medical experts around the world and put the lives of vulnerable students at risk? Or are we going to give all kids a fair chance to be successful in person, at school, where they belong, ”the statement said from Wise.

The district statement cited the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits discrimination based on disability and requires districts to provide students with disabilities with safe and equal access to education. public.

“The ordinance (from the county health department) ignores well-established science and guidance regarding COVID-19 mitigation and puts the health and learning of vulnerable students – those with chronic illnesses at risk, of respiratory problems and other serious health problems – “the statement read. .

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Tri-County Health Department and Children’s Health Colorado all recommend universal masking, according to the release.

Newly reported cases, hospitalizations and deaths “have all risen sharply” in the state and county, the statement said, while test positivity rates in Douglas County remain high, “suggesting cases may be underestimated ”.

The Douglas County School District is the third largest district in the state, serving approximately 64,000 students. The district’s announcement said the enrollment count includes thousands of students with disabilities who are at greater risk of serious illness from COVID-19.

More than 700 students need “intensive support in a special setting in order to fully benefit from their educational program,” the statement said. Distance education is not as effective for them and providing a safe in-person experience is “of paramount importance”.

A spokeswoman for the Douglas County Health Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment from County Health Board Chairman Doug Benevento.

A spokesperson for the Douglas County School District said they were working to respond to Colorado Community Media’s request for an interview with Wise.

This story has been updated with a statement from the Chairman of the Douglas County Health Department Board and the Chairman of the Douglas County School Board

Text of the trial

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