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Parents sue Petaluma’s Dunham School District over outdoor mask requirement

A group of parents has sued one of Sonoma County’s smallest school districts over its outdoor mask mandate, grounding one of the nation’s most divisive pandemic debates at a lone Petaluma-area campus of 140 students.

The lawsuit, filed Sept. 20, seeks to bar the school district in southwest Sonoma County from continuing its outdoor masking policy, arguing it infringes on parents’ rights by going beyond guidance handed down from public health authorities.

“What we are looking for is nothing more or less than science-based public health policy as it pertains to outdoor masking only,” said Scott Cohen, attorney for the five plaintiffs and himself a parent to a student at Dunham Elementary School.

The lawsuit is the first known legal challenge to various COVID safety protocols enacted by Sonoma County’s 40 school districts.

The outdoor masking policy, which began Sept. 10 in Dunham, applies to staff as well as students on campus. Dunham, which has a single TK-6 campus, is joined by at least six other public school districts in the county that have imposed an outdoor masking policy. Healdsburg Unified, Wright Elementary and Windsor Unified are some of the others.

“It is all about keeping the kids safe and in school,” said Daniel Hoffman, superintendent and principal of the single-school district.

The five parents suing the Dunham School District argue that the school district’s policy overreaches the mandates of state and local health authorities and infringes on parents’ constitutional rights.

School leaders, “as educators, not health experts, insist they are authorized to create their own, more restrictive and unnecessary public health policy,” the complaint reads.

Dr. Sundari Mase, Sonoma County’s health officer, most recently weighed in on outdoor masking at schools with a health order issued Aug. 24. Her order stopped short of mandating outdoor masks, instead offering a “strong” recommendation.

The basis for that health order was echoed in the language Dunham School District later used when announcing its own outdoor mask policy: safety and keeping more kids in school.

“The added level of protection of masking outdoors will help minimize the spread of COVID-19 on campus as well as enable students to stay in school and have the fewest possible interruptions to in-person learning,” the order reads in part.

The issue is particularly vexing for elementary districts, whose students remain ineligible to receive a COVID vaccine. District leaders have said many students have had to quarantine at home after they were exposed to an infected peer while unmasked, usually during lunch or recess.

If students are masked during close contact with a COVID-positive person, they have the option to do a modified quarantine, which allows them to stay in school.

The parents suing the district don’t dispute the requirement to mask indoors, Cohen said, nor the objecting to the recent statewide vaccine mandate for students. But he said that if county and state health officials haven’t mandated masks for students outdoors, the school has no basis — and, he argues, no legal authority — to do so.

“We want them to follow the law in adopting legal mandates, not recommendations,” he said. “It’s not about money. This is about getting the masks off the children as fast as possible.”

Jennifer Nix, the lawyer representing the school district, said that the parents have misinterpreted where the U.S. and California constitutions and the judiciary draw the line on parent control over campus rules, including health measures.

That line, she said, is “that the parent has the right to choose what school they want their child to go to.”

Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Arthur Wick denied an emergency application from the plaintiffs to block the school district’s enforcement of the outdoor mask requirement while the case plays out. Both parties are now preparing longer arguments, to be filed later this week.

In court filings, the two sides point to different pieces of guidance from health authorities, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The parents focused on observations from the AAP that “children younger than 10 years are less likely to become infected and less likely to spread infection to others.”

But the school district in its argument pointed to AAP guidance for unvaccinated athletes to wear masks “during all group training and competition in which there is sustained contact of 3 feet or less.”

And while the parents highlighted guidance from the California Department of Public Health stating “masks are optional outdoors for all in K-12 setting,” the school district refers to CDC guidance recommending “that people who are not fully vaccinated wear a mask in crowded outdoor settings or during activities that involve sustained close contact with other people.”

Steve Herrington, Sonoma County superintendent of schools, said schools have historically had priority to determine health and safety measures for students while on campus.

“The (school) board’s consideration in their action was to create a healthy and safe environment for children,” he said.

If the plaintiffs prevail in sinking the mask requirement in the Dunham School District, “I guess districts would have to re-look at those rules or would seek a county health order giving them permission to (instate an outdoor mask requirement),” Herrington said.

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Oct. 29.

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

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