Cobb families who sued school district over lack of mask mandate win appeal

Jan. 5—A group of Cobb families that sued the Cobb County School District over its lack of certain COVID-19 protocols, such as a mask mandate, has won an appeal in federal court.

The suit, first filed in October 2021, argued that Cobb School District's failure to follow guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention denied students with disabilities, medical conditions and respiratory ailments access to a safe, in-person learning environment.

The plaintiffs are four unnamed Cobb students and their parents, and are represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center and two metro Atlanta law firms. The defendants are CCSD, Superintendent Chris Ragsdale and the school board's four Republicans.

The students all have disabilities, such as muscular dystrophy, leukemia and respiratory conditions, and argued they are at risk of severe symptoms or death should they be infected with COVID-19.

Adding to that risk, they argued, was the district's choice to loosen its COVID policies ahead of the 2021-2022 school year, including not requiring masks to be worn in schools. As such, the children were forced to opt into virtual learning courses, causing them "irreparable harm" and subjecting them to discrimination.

The Southern Poverty Law Center argues the district violated the students' civil rights as enshrined by the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

The same month the suit was filed, Chief Judge Timothy Batten of the U.S. District Court for Northern Georgia denied the plaintiffs' request for an emergency order which would compel the district to tighten its COVID protocols. Batten ruled the district had reasonably provided the students with access to education by offering virtual classes and that the students were not demonstrably suffering unequal treatment.

The SPLC appealed the district court's ruling in November 2021.

In a recent ruling, the 11th Circuit U.S. Appeals Court decided the district court had erred by "misconstruing the Students' argument as a right to education generally, despite the record clearly establishing that the Students are alleging a denial of access to in-person education."

"The CDC guidance recommends that schools 'must make reasonable modifications or accommodations when necessary to ensure that all students, including those with disabilities, are able to access in person learning'— recommendations the Students allege that CCSD continues to ignore," wrote Judge Charles Wilson, who authored the opinion.

The appeals court sent the case back to the district court, ordering it to "analyze whether virtual schooling is a reasonable accommodation for in-person schooling, not education in general."

Cobb schools declined to comment on "ongoing litigation."

"We are pleased that the Eleventh Circuit rejected the school district's erroneous arguments," said Eugene Choi, senior staff attorney for the SPLC, in a statement. "The court agreed with our clients that school policies can be discriminatory even when they are facially neutral, and schools must provide students with disabilities access to a safe, in-person learning environment.

"Students with disabilities have the right to the same services and programs as their non-disabled peers, including the right to receive the benefits of an in-person education. The court's opinion confirmed this right. School districts cannot relegate students with disabilities to home virtual programs because of their disabilities. Instead, schools must make reasonable accommodations and modifications so that students with disabilities can safely and meaningfully access their schools in-person."