Gwinnett parents sue over school mask mandate

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Four parents of students in Gwinnett County Public Schools recently sued the district and Superintendent Calvin Watts, seeking an injunction to void the school system’s mask mandate.

The district of 180,000 students — Georgia’s largest — imposed the mandate at the end of July. That’s when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended universal masking in schools amid a spike in COVID-19 cases caused by the highly contagious delta variant.

Parents in Cobb County, which also required masks last school year, sued the Cobb district in the spring but dropped the suit after their district went mask-optional.

Justin and Meghann Verrier, Margaret Rudnick and Holly Terei filed the lawsuit Monday in Gwinnett County Superior Court. Their lawyer is Mitch Skandalakis, the same attorney who brought the lawsuit in Cobb. He did not respond to emails seeking comment.

The lawsuit alleges the Gwinnett district is violating an executive order Gov. Brian Kemp issued in July that, the lawsuit says, rescinded school districts’ ability to issue mask mandates. The suit does not cite any specific provisions of any of Kemp’s executive orders.

According to a May executive order, schools can’t use the state’s COVID-19 emergency declaration to mandate masks, but are not explicitly forbidden from requiring them.

The lawsuit says face masks make breathing more difficult. It cites a study in the Journal of Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology that said healthcare professionals had headaches, rashes and impaired cognition after long periods wearing N95 or surgical masks. It says some students’ academic performances suffer because they can’t hear masked teachers and some students experience anxiety over wearing masks.

According to the lawsuit, the mask mandate violates the free speech provision of the Georgia constitution.

“The School District intends the Mask Mandate to coercively convey an affiliation with a particular political party,” the suit says.

The suit alleges the Gwinnett school district was negligent in crafting its policy. The parents are seeking unspecified damages and attorney’s fees.

Sloan Roach, school district spokeswoman, said in a statement: “The school district will defend its authority and obligation to follow public health guidance to protect our students and staff.”

Gwinnett parents began protesting masks in schools this spring, delaying a May board of education meeting when they refused to wear the required masks or leave. At the end of July, while the school board was inside confirming Watts as the new superintendent, about 300 anti-mask protesters gathered outside with Republican gubernatorial candidate Vernon Jones.

Local public health officials Wednesday begged Gwinnett residents to wear masks and get vaccinated as COVID-19 cases climb. They reported 415 cases per 100,000 children aged 5-17 in the last two weeks of August — an exponential increase from the 10 cases per 100,000 school-aged children during the two weeks leading up to the Fourth of July.

Gwinnett County Public Schools reported 3,227 confirmed cases of COVID-19 for the month of August, according to data posted to its website.

Staff writer Tyler Wilkins contributed to this article.