California schools fear losing millions from lawsuits over masks, infections

Education officials want the state to indemnify local school districts ahead of the fall semester


The Sacramento Bee
By Mackenzie Hawkins

Computers, cleaning supplies, custodial staff and civil suits.

COVID-19 has introduced both new costs and threatened funding for California's schools, which are facing unprecedented questions about classroom safety as they plan for fall reopening.

Wearing masks at school may soon be a reality for thousands of students nationwide. Image: Juan Figuero via TNS
Wearing masks at school may soon be a reality for thousands of students nationwide. Image: Juan Figuero via TNS

How they answer those questions — including mask requirements, cleaning procedures and contact tracing — could lead to millions of dollars in lawsuits as parents attack local guidelines on civil liberties and public health grounds, South Bay Union superintendent Dr. Katie McNamara warned at an Assembly education committee meeting this week.

Without executive or legislative action for the state to assume litigation costs, said committee chair Assemblyman Patrick O'Donnell, D-Long Beach, lawsuits could devastate districts already running on razor-thin margins.

Schools aren't supposed to be a cash cow for a lawyer," O'Donnell said. "They're supposed to be places for students to learn. If we're not careful, schools are going to become someone's cash cow. And ultimately, it's gonna fall on the taxpayer.

"Unless we indemnify them, I don't know how they move forward."

The California Department of Education said in a statement that they will look into liability issues raised by school leaders.

Part of the problem, according to McNamara, is that state guidelines are not strict requirements, but rather slightly varied recommendations that administrators are interpreting in vastly varied ways.

In particular, they're concerned that mask requirements in the classroom will lead to conflict in the courtroom.

Gov. Gavin Newsom's statewide mask order exempts certain public settings that have their own guidelines — such as schools, which take direction from the departments of education and public health.

Under its current reopening plan, the education department encourages face coverings and says that districts need to be "well-resourced" with masks "at a minimum." The public health department is telling schools to "teach and reinforce use" of masks and other shields.

McNamara said that while she plans to require masks at her schools, other leaders look at such guidelines as mere suggestions.

Education committee member Assemblywoman Christy Smith, D-Santa Clarita, noted that advisory — as opposed to mandatory — language is atypical for education, where state officials usually enforce prescriptive protocols for everything from playground equipment to cleaning products.

While top education and public health officials signaled a commitment to consistency on Tuesday, they fell short of promising uniformity. Rather, said Superintendent Tony Thurmond, districts should plan for their unique circumstances while the state creates recommendations based on the best available scientific evidence.

But school leaders worry that their local orders will trigger legal challenges: on one side, from parents whose children contract COVID-19 at school, and on another, from parents who view mask orders as violations of students' first amendment rights.

Those in the latter category will likely find allies in anti-vaccine activists, which have rallied a new cohort of crusaders against coronavirus public health orders.

According to O'Donnell, even a statewide mask mandate would not protect educators from litigation at the local level. Smith said that guidance could provide "some protection" but won't entirely mitigate risks of legal action.

Going forward, Smith plans to address districts' risk-related concerns by pushing for clear statewide guidance and allocating federal funding to schools, should that funding become available.

But O'Donnell said that indemnification needs to be "at the top of our priority list" as legislators transition from a reactive to proactive response.

California's schools have faced numerous lawsuits in recent years, in which plaintiffs have argued that the state fails teach students to exercise and read.

Next: COVID-19: The coming spread of employee lawsuits

(c)2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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