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Lawsuit seeks to undo mask rule for Hillsborough public schools

A local attorney says the rule is governmental overreach that could consign children to inferior distance learning.

TAMPA — Weeks before students report to school, an attorney is suing the Hillsborough County School District over its rule requiring students to wear masks.

Patrick Leduc alleges in his circuit court lawsuit that the rule was enacted without enough public input. It is potentially discriminatory, he argues, as noncompliance will cause some children to be sent home to learn.

And, he says, it is not necessary.

“As of this writing, there is not one single instance, anywhere in the entire world, where one single school teacher has contracted COVID-19 from a student,” Leduc asserted in the lawsuit. “Zero cases. Anywhere on planet earth.”

Leduc filed the action Friday on behalf of several families with children in Hillsborough public schools. The parents raised a variety of objections, saying the masks could cause their children physical and psychological harm while failing to protect them from infection.

The rule, which superintendent Addison Davis announced on July 7, requires adults and children to wear masks on campus unless there is an approved exemption, or a situation in which they can maintain social distance. They can remove their masks while they are eating, but must put them back on for the rest of their lunch break. Students who forget their masks will be provided a disposable one by the school.

The rule was welcomed by teachers who fear the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, will spread once students return to school. Even in the months since schools closed in March, the district has been made aware of 297 COVID-19 cases at 139 schools. Ten of the patients were children, the rest were staff.

Leduc said he takes the coronavirus threat seriously and wears mask. But he says it’s unreasonable to expect small children to wear masks all day. His lawsuit also contends that schools don’t have a right to mandate the wearing of a medical device with teachers — who are not medical personnel — providing the only supervision.

“I have four children myself,” Leduc said. “My daughter’s mask is going to end up on Johnny’s face and Johnny’s mask is going to end up on my daughter’s face. This is a disaster.”

Leduc’s lawsuit cites studies that indicate the coronavirus poses minimal threat to children. He says the rule was approved without a hearing that would have allowed public comment.

And he takes issue with the idea that students can be transferred into distance learning if they do not comply with the mask rule. He makes the case that distance learning is not real school, that too much screen time is harmful for children, and that such a plan is therefore discriminatory.

Just the one week of school between Aug. 24 and 28, when all instruction will be virtual, consigns them to an inferior form of schooling, he wrote.

Leduc contends that government at all levels has committed overreach because of fear of the virus.

“Just because you have an emergency, that does not mean that COVID-19 should make rule of law a victim,” he said.

The school district’s communications chief, Tanya Arja, provided a link to the district’s fact sheet on face coverings and said the new rule is based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the local health department and other medical authorities.

“The experts agree that face coverings are one of the most effective means for preventing the spread of COVID-19,” Arja said. “We are sensitive to the unique challenges with requiring face coverings in a school setting, but we believe it is one of the most important strategies we have to provide an additional layer of protection for everyone on our campuses.

“There are reasonable exemptions built into the mandate and we will work with families based on their individual needs.”

Leduc, a U.S. Army colonel who considers himself something of a civil libertarian, said the families sought him out because of high-profile work he has done since the coronavirus pandemic began. Previously, he challenged actions by the state and county to reduce the spread of COVID-19, including Hillsborough’s short-lived curfew.

He was one of the attorneys for Rodney Howard-Browne, a megachurch pastor who was arrested on charges of unlawful assembly when he held Sunday services during a county safer-at-home order. Those charges were dropped.

Leduc has asked for an injunction, but said he hopes the case will not get to court. “I would hope they would pick up the phone and I’ll bet we can do business,” he said. “I will not bring a lawsuit that I do not believe I can win.”

Arja said the district had not been served with the lawsuit Friday afternoon, but “we are reviewing the complaint and will defend the district’s position.”