Superior Court Denies Injunction Against DESE and Local District School Mask Mandates

Joining a continually increasing number of federal and state courts around the country, a justice of the Hampden Superior Court has denied a request for an injunction against the state-wide school mask mandate first ordered by the Commissioner of DESE on August 25, 2021 and against several local school districts’ school mask policies.

In The Family Freedom Endeavor, Inc. et al. v. Riley, et al., two entities and several individual parents brought six actions in various superior courts against DESE, eighteen school districts, and two municipalities, claiming that all lacked legal authority to issue school mask mandates and that these mandates violate various individual constitutional rights. At the request of all defendants, the cases were consolidated in the first-filed case in Hampden County and argument on the injunction requests was heard on October 26, 2021.

On November 16, 2021, the court issued a 15-page decision denying the requests. Addressing the claim against DESE first, the court held that G.L. c. 69, § 1B “unambiguously evinces a legislative intent that [DESE] ensure that students attend classes in a healthy and safe educational environment” and that DESE has “authority …during an unprecedented pandemic to establish policies to ensure safe in-person learning in public schools.” The court rejected an additional argument that there were no “exigent circumstances” that allowed DESE to act under its regulations, stating “the plaintiffs’ blanket denial of exigent circumstances and of the need for masks in schools contradicts the guidance issued by the CDC, the DPH, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.”

Regarding the authority of the local districts to issue school mask mandates, the court held that local entities have the power to “impose health related rules in their own schools” and that this authority has not been preempted by the Commonwealth because there is no conflict between DESE’s mask mandate and the local policies, and because the mandates are “guided by the DPH, other public health authorities, and medical experts.”

Last, the court emphatically rejected the claims that these mandates violate any constitutional rights. The court pointed out that parents do not have a “fundamental interest in not having their children masked at school”; that parental rights “do not include the liberty to expose the community or a child to communicable diseases”; and that these mandates “were created, tailored, and implemented in consultation with medical experts and on the basis of widely accepted public health recommendations.” Noting that the plaintiffs’ arguments “are premised upon nonauthoritative cases as well as thin and heavily contradicted evidence”, the court ruled that the mandates survive judicial review because “[t]hey serve the legitimate State interest of slowing the spread of COVID-19”. Accordingly, the court decided that the plaintiffs had failed to satisfy the requirements for enjoining the mask policies.

The court’s decision means that school districts have the authority to impose rational requirements to protect the health of students so long as those requirements do not conflict with DESE’s policies and orders. While the plaintiffs may try to seek some form of appellate review, the court’s decision is consistent with overwhelming authority throughout the United States and is both thorough and well-reasoned.

Local districts should consult with counsel regarding any questions about mask policies, including whether exemptions or accommodations apply in individual cases.

This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.