Parents from Glocester, North Smithfield sign on to lawsuit over mask mandate

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PROVIDENCE – A group of 16 families from Glocester, Smithfield, Warwick and North Smithfield are named as plaintiffs in a suit against Gov. Dan McKee over Rhode Island’s school mask mandate and extended emergency orders.

The complaint filed in Providence Superior Court alleges that the governor lacks constitutional authority to enforce the mandate, and includes personal stories from parents and grandparents on the affects the face coverings have had on children.

While some cited concerns that have been consistently refuted by medical professionals, many also focused on less measurable changes in children, including depression, withdrawal and a loss of enthusiasm.

“She has lost the desire to be in school and be the happy student she was until last year,” noted Glocester parent Melissa Fitzgerald of her 5th grade daughter.

Fitzgerald said her child has frequently complained of headaches and exhaustion after school, which the mother says never happened before masking.

“Our son, who is soft spoken, has found it difficult to be heard and understood through a mask,” said plaintiffs Julie and Paul McKinney of Glocester, noting that over time, their son, a fourth-grader, has participated less in class as a result. “We believe in the public education system, we believe it is the best place for our children to learn and grow, but not with all of these restrictions.”

Many noted they’ve had difficulty explaining to kids why they must follow a strictly-enforced mask policy at school, while the same kids can spend time together mask free outside the classroom.

“The point is that the vulnerable in every household has had the opportunity to get vaccinated and wear a mask if they choose to,” said Danielle Ferguson of North Smithfield.

The 26-page complaint also questions the efficacy of masking, and cites concerns over changes in oxygen levels. Studies have found that wearing a face mask has a negligible negative effect on oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. And while estimates on the amount of protection a mask provides may vary, health experts widely agree that face coverings reduce the spread of the virus.

The parents, however, note the need for normalcy, and point to the difficulty of tasks like running in a mask, or playing an instrument.

“Children are not getting this disease and when they are, there are very minimal symptoms,” noted Carolyn Moretti, a retired nurse, in the suit.

While fears of ongoing spread of the more contagious Delta variant and concern for more vulnerable students with health issues have led to continued safety measures in schools, rates of severe illness among children do remain low. Rhode Island Department of Health data on COVID-19 fatalities lists “0” among those for all age brackets under age 24 in the state, but clarifies that the number is used to represent deaths of “less than five.”

For hospitalizations, RIDOH calculates the rate per 100,000, with 89 listed for children age 0-4. According to the 2020 census there are 54,802 kids in Rhode Island under age 5. Cumulative hospitalizations in the 14-18 year old age bracket is calculated at 85 per 100,000 for a population of roughly 70,000.

The data states that 117 people in Rhode Island are currently hospitalized, including 22 people in the ICU and 12 on ventilators. At a peak in December 2020, before vaccines became widely available, 517 Rhode Islanders were hospitalized, including 63 in the ICU and 32 on ventilators.

Of the 701,988 state residents who have been fully vaccinated, 15 had COVID as the leading cause of death according to reports this week. Nationally, vaccinated patients make up just 2 percent of those hospitalized for Covid.

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