Four parents are suing the Cobb County school district on behalf of their children, saying the failure of Georgia’s second-largest school district to require masks means their students cannot safely attend in-person classes because of their disabilities.
The suit was filed Friday in federal court in Atlanta. It says the 107,000-student suburban Atlanta district is violating federal law, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Those laws govern how students with disabilities are treated in public schools.
“Rather than using the known and available tools to mitigate the threat of COVID-19 and protect plaintiffs’ access to school services, programs, and activities, the district has acted with deliberate indifference to plaintiffs’ rights to inclusion, health, and education,” the complaint alleges.
Earlier this week, when the Southern Poverty Law Center threatened the lawsuit on behalf of the students, Cobb schools told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “as is the case with any issue, individual student needs are supported on a student-by-student basis and we actively encourage any student or family to discuss their needs with their local school.”
The lawsuit asks that U.S. District Judge Timothy Batten Sr. order the district to follow CDC guidelines, including not only on masks but on issues like ventilation, physical distancing and contact tracing. It also asks for monetary damages and attorney’s fees. It also asks Batten to issue a temporary restraining order as soon as possible.
Numerous lawsuits have been filed nationwide seeking to force schools to require masks under federal disability law.
Whether to require masks in Cobb schools has been the focus of protest for months. Like many in Georgia, Cobb lifted its mask order at the end of last year. But many districts reimposed mask orders as school began this August, because of the rapid spread of the delta variant of COVID-19. Although some districts have since lifted mask orders, an Associated Press count found that more than half of Georgia’s 1.7 million students were required to wear face coverings in school at the peak of the most recent COVID-19 surge in the state.
Cobb, though, dug in saying that masks would only be strongly recommended. Superintendent Chris Ragsdale last month delivered a ringing defense of the policy, noting cases were declining in Cobb schools — as they were in schools and among the general population statewide — and saying there was no proof that requiring masks lowered cases in schools.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued two studies in recent months finding masks were effective in lowering cases and advises that masks should be mandatory for all in schools when the virus is spreading rapidly, regardless of vaccination policy.
The suit said Ragsdale’s position is based on “dubious research and cherry-picked data.”
Cobb wasn’t alone in this stance. Cherokee and Forsyth counties never imposed mask orders last year, when Cobb did. But Cobb has been riven by conflict, with a narrow conservative majority on its school board holding the line against groups demanding masks. The suit alleges the four white Republican members of the school board “form a politically and race-driven majority voting bloc” that is disregarding the position of three Black Democrats on the board.
The lawsuit says the students are more at risk from COVID-19 because of their medical conditions. One has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, one has compromised immune system stemming from earlier leukemia, one has an airway clearance impairment called bronchiectasis and one has severe asthma and a history of pneumonia.
“Plaintiff children have requested that defendants implement effective COVID-19 safety protocols — like they did last year — so that they can go to school. But those requests have been denied or ignored,” the lawsuit states. “Now, plaintiffs are at home, isolated away from their peers, where they receive an inadequate virtual education or no education at all.”
Georgia’s recent peak was especially bad among children. A roaring epidemic that coincided with the start of school saw a two week-period before Labor Day when nearly 1 in 50 school-age children statewide recorded confirmed infections and 1 in 70 in Cobb. For the first time in the pandemic, the per-capita rate among children ages 5-17 exceeded the per-capita rate among adults 23 and older. Although new cases are falling sharply, data released Friday shows school-age children still have a higher per capita infection rate than adults. The statistics also showcase rates remain nearly three times as high than before school started.