Judge denies request to immediately lift mask order

School district lawsuit continues but district gets first court win

[ by Mark Reaman ]

Citing the health, safety and welfare of all students, staff and faculty in the Gunnison Watershed School District, district court judge Steven Patrick on Tuesday denied the request from four local citizens to immediately revoke the school district’s mask mandate. This does not mean the lawsuit itself is over and school district lawyers are working on a response to the original suit.

The four citizens, Tomas Gomez who has two students in the Crested Butte Community School, Michael Spritzer and McKenna Basara who have a child at Lake School and David Justice, filed a lawsuit against the school district and superintendent Leslie Nichols on October 7 questioning whether Nichols had the lawful right to implement such a mask mandate and whether she followed proper protocol. They asked the court to impose a Temporary Restraining Order to lift the mandate and a four hour hearing over the issue was held in district court on Thursday, November 4. Because the entire four hours were used, Patrick gave both sides until Monday to file written closing arguments. He made his ruling Tuesday.

“The parenting decisions for three children cannot supersede the importance of health, safety and welfare of all students, staff and faculty. The public interest in health weighs in support of denial of the injunction,” Patrick concluded in his ruling.

Dr. David Buether, a pulmonary disease expert, testified at the November 4 hearing that masking is an effective tool in preventing COVID-19 and an important part of the collective strategy to reduce the spread of the virus. He also testified that there is no credible literature that masks harm the wearers.

Patrick’s seven-page denial notes that the plaintiffs presented no evidence of injury at the hearing. “All testimony they elicited in the roughly three hours they used of the four-hour hearing related to the process of Defendants in instituting the mask policy,” the ruling states.

Patrick noted several times that the district implemented the mask mandate for the 2020-21 school year and the district completed the year with in-person learning. It then started the latest school year without a mask mandate and COVID-19 cases began to climb. After the mask mandate was imposed, cases declined.

“The Court notes that the cases on this issue, mostly in federal courts, have consistently so far “affirmed school mask mandates,” Patrick wrote. “Plaintiffs failed to present any evidence to suggest that the equities for the injunctive relief were in their favor. Rather, the only issue they addressed at the hearing was the procedural steps taken by Defendants. Implementation of the mask mandate to address the rapidly increasing COVID cases in the schools to protect students, staff and teachers outweighs any concerns of the alleged procedural shortcomings.”

In an email to her team, Nichols stated that, “we are doing the hard work of educating the kids in the midst of lots of background noise! Stay the course. Your focus on the kids is the absolute critical work of the district, always …  thank you for your continued commitment to wearing masks in our buildings. It does still matter in reducing risk of spreading COVID, your modeling good mask use for students is critical, and your continued prompts for students to keep their masks up and over their nose and mouth is essential. I know it can be exhausting. I will continue to work with Public Health in finalizing metrics for our mask exit strategy; we are close to landing on that guidance…”

Emails were sent to Gomez and Justice asking for comment on the court ruling. Gomez responded he had not yet had time to read the document but obviously disagreed with Judge Patrick’s decision.

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