Colleges’ Mask Mandate Debate Lands In Courtroom
The debate about masking requirements in local schools is taking place in the courtroom. Judge Thomas G. Power of the 13th District Court heard from attorneys on Wednesday at a hearing on Show Causes, one of the first steps in a new lawsuit filed last week against Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) and Grand Traverse Academy (GTA) ) was submitted. The lawsuit, filed by Grand Rapids-based attorney James A. Thomas on behalf of his clients – a student from TCAPS and one from GTA – argues that school districts and their boards of directors are not empowered “under any rule of law” to prescribe masks for students, as there is currently no corresponding order from the Grand Traverse County Health Department (GTCHD).
First, Thomas applied to the court for an injunction that would have prevented TCAPS and GTA from enforcing their masking orders, at least temporarily. Prior to Wednesday’s hearing, Power had already denied Thomas’ motion for a restraining order that would have forced the defendants to suspend their masking mandates before subpoenas were served. Power ruled that “the plaintiffs’ violation is not irreparable / immediate” and that Thomas “made no effort to notify the defendants,” as the Michigan Court Rules provide.
Power also denied Thomas’ request for an injunction at the injunction hearing on Wednesday, ruling that Thomas had failed to prove that plaintiff’s claims met Michigan’s four-factor standard for injunctions.
But that doesn’t mean the case is over. The matter is now on trial, with Power finding at the end of the hearing that the court will “post the pre-trial statements and issue an appointment.”
The lawsuit is in part the product of a social media and crowdfunding campaign that has been going on for weeks. On September 8th, the local parent company Sally Roeser started a GoFundMe campaign with the title “LAWSUIT against TCAPS and GTA”. So far, this campaign has raised $ 7,850 for a $ 15,000 goal, with the money going to cover Thomas’ fees.
“We all have a responsibility to defend ourselves against what we know is wrong, especially when it comes to our children,” wrote Roeser. “We met with a lawyer from Grand Rapids who agreed to take our case. He is involved in several other similar lawsuits across the state, against COVID mandates and restrictions in schools.
Roeser did not respond to the ticker’s request for comment.
At the hearing on Wednesday, Thomas argued that school authorities for TCAPS and GTA had exceeded their limits by enacting rules that were not supported by orders from the local health department. While several health departments in northern Michigan have issued masking mandates for schools – including both the Benzie-Leelanau Health District and the Health Department of Northwest Michigan (which includes counties of Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet, and Otsego) – GTCHD has not.
“Obviously, through its district officers, the health department does not have the feeling that the masking has to be implemented in this district,” said Thomas. “So the school authorities make this decision and are the full deputy for the district officers and [the health department]. “
Robert Jordan, the attorney for TCAPS, argued that the district board of directors was able to request masks even without a GTCHD mandate.
“The Education Committee has decided that masks are required in school buildings,” Jordan said. “That was based on recommendations from the CDC and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS). The MDHHS hands over to the local health authorities; however, it is called local health departments and the district education areas. So we are talking about the findings of the local school districts as well as the local health authorities. “
Jordan added that the “Enabling Statutes of the Education Committee allow school authorities to determine what is in the best interests of the health and safety of students,” arguing that COVID-19 is an “ongoing problem of imminent danger” that the board mandate is appropriate. He also noted that the TCAPS board has promised to periodically review its masking mandate based on local COVID numbers. The next re-evaluation is scheduled for the TCAPS board meeting on October 25th.
TCAPS chairman Scott Newman-Bale told The Ticker that given the circumstances in which the board decided to require masks, the lawsuit was essentially inevitable. Newman-Bale has previously criticized GTCHD for failing to provide guidance or guidance to local school districts on the matter.
“I think we always knew that no matter what decision was made, a lawsuit was likely,” he says. “I would also say that we believe we need to protect the safety of children in our school system, but welcome the courts to provide as much final information as possible, which is sorely lacking at the moment.”
Dana Holcomb, president of the GTA school board, said her board had no comment.
To grant interim relief in a case like this, a judge must weigh four factors. The first is whether the party seeking injunctive relief wins on the merits – or, essentially, whether that party is particularly likely to win the litigation. The second question is whether the party seeking relief will suffer irreparable harm if an injunction is not issued. The third question is whether issuing the injunction could cause significant harm to others. And the fourth is whether issuing the injunction is in the public interest.
Power eventually ruled that the plaintiffs’ attorney had “shown no likelihood of getting his way” due to the lack of precedent to suggest that local school authorities were going beyond their authority.
“Of course, schools by and large have the right to regulate student behavior,” he said. “And if the school authorities want to say [students] have to wear a mask, we assume that they have the power to do so. “
As for the irreparable damage, Power acknowledged that the plaintiff had a number of grounds to file a lawsuit – simply not enough to warrant an injunction.
“In terms of an injunction, you weigh the damage to the student,” said Power. “What, there are some [harm] there: I find it impractical [for kids to have to wear masks], and it distracts from learning. It is not comfortable to sit there with a mask on. Compare that to the rest of society, where you could increase disease prevalence and exposure to the elderly [by granting the injunction]. So it is not clear to me that the harm to the applicant outweighs the harm to the rest of the public. “