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Parents Sue Sarasota School Board Over Mask Policy

Sarasota County School superintendent Brennan Asplen is among those named as defendants in the suit.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The lawsuit wants to prevent Sarasota County Schools from compelling students to wear face masks - a requirement now for entering school.

Several parents are suing the Sarasota County School Board over its face-covering policy, alleging in a civil suit that mask wearing to prevent the spread of coronavirus is interfering with children’s fundamental right to a free and uniform public education.

Parents currently have the choice of sending their children to school with a facemask, or can opt for remote learning or homeschool.

But the lawsuit likens the situation to the 1982 movie “Sophie’s Choice” which centers on a woman being forced to choose which of her children will die.

“This Sofie [sic] Choice is being foisted upon the citizens of Sarasota County in an irrational way, in violation of the Florida Constitution,” said the 59-page legal filing.

Plaintiffs also cite the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that racial segregation of children in public schools is unconstitutional.

“A virtual classroom is not the classroom, and children subject to a virtual education are receiving a separate and unequal education,” it says.

Sarasota, like other area public schools districts, requires students and staff to wear masks inside, except for short breaks during the day, lunchtime, or if a child has a medical exemption.

Parents who don’t want to send their children to brick-and-mortal school can choose virtual options. Close to 70 percent of children in Sarasota now attend school in person.

According to lawyer Patrick Leduc, who is representing the plaintiffs, “the alternative of e-learning is separate and unequal.”

“If education is a fundamental value, or a fundamental right, as I am asserting, then any regulation that would interfere with that fundamental right must be narrowly tailored, must sustain a compelling interest and must withstand strict judicial scrutiny,” he said.

Leduc argues that e-learning is not as good as in-person instruction, and that mask policies overstep parental rights and are excessive.

“There's not one case on planet Earth of a teacher catching COVID-19 from their student, not one. Zero,” he said.

He said the school board would likely be formerly served with the suit Tuesday. It was filed with the 12th Judicial Circuit in Sarasota last week.

Sarasota County Schools spokesman Craig Maniglia said the district was unable to comment on pending litigation.

Among the plaintiffs are Amy Cook and Gustavo Collazo, who have two elementary-age children in Sarasota County schools.

“The plaintiffs have documented medical exemptions based on religion from vaccinations, and believe that wearing a mask violates their rights and those of their children under the First and Fourteenth Amendment,” the filing states.

“Both boys have severe allergies and one is borderline asthmatic,” it says.

Other plaintiffs include Nicholas Eastman and Katie Gonzalez, both described as parents of Sarasota County school children, and opposed to mask-wearing in school.

Jay Wolfson, a professor of public health medicine and pharmacy at the University of South Florida, said the plaintiffs are not likely to win because the school board’s mask policy is based on the advice of medical experts and is designed to protect public health in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

“Nor does Brown versus Board of Education fit into the argument in this case,” Wolfson said.

“Brown versus Board of Education speaks to equal access and equal rights to receive an education. There is nothing in the school board’s policy that precludes a student from obtaining an education in the classroom or virtually,” he added.

“A fundamental right is not being denied. It is being conditioned on personal responsibility, good science and common sense.”

Copyright 2020 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Kerry Sheridan is a reporter and co-host of All Things Considered at WUSF Public Media.