October 7, 2021 by Carol Britton Meyer
Some Hingham parents are part of five lawsuits against the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education and the Hingham Public Schools and other school districts that challenge state and local mask mandates.
The public schools mandate issued by Commissioner of Education Jeffrey Riley last August -- requiring all K-12 public schools students ages five and older, educators, staff, and visitors to wear face masks until at least Oct. 1 in order to provide time to increase the vaccination rate in school buildings -- was recently extended until Nov. 1 or later, at Riley's discretion.
The commissioner’s initial policy called for allowing middle and high schools to potentially lift the mask mandate for vaccinated students and staff only after Oct. 1 if they reached a certain vaccination threshold – that at least 80 percent of students and staff, combined, in a school building are vaccinated.
"All the school districts being sued have parents with children attending school in those districts," Robert Fojo, the attorney for the five lawsuits told the Hingham Anchor. Other districts being challenged in lawsuits include Carver and West Bridgewater.
Children's Health Rights of Massachusetts is also a plaintiff in three of the lawsuits, including the one against the Hingham and other school districts, because some members of that organization are parents with children enrolled in public school districts that are being sued.
Fojo, a New Hampshire lawyer who also practices in Massachusetts, said that any party he is representing "contacted me directly." He is also representing parents in his own state in similar lawsuits challenging school district mask mandates.
Fojo explained the reason behind the lawsuits. "DESE and school districts don't have the statutory authority to pass broad health measures like these," he said, noting that the Massachusetts Department of Public Health's existing statutes and rules "don't provide for a broad mask mandate in response to coronavirus."
Fojo opposes DESE's attempt to consolidate these five lawsuits into another action pending against DESE in Hampden Superior Court. "Our lawsuits include expedited requests for injunctive relief," he said, which includes requesting an order at the beginning of the lawsuit proceedings that would prohibit mask mandates in the communities involved in the five lawsuits from being enforced until the case is decided.
"We also requested that our clients' cases be heard on an expedited basis," Fojo said. "At this point, I'm not sure whether the lawsuits will be consolidated, the injunction request honored, or when the cases will be heard."
Another concern with potential consolidation of the lawsuits is that the Hampden Court lawsuits don't request expedited injunctive relief, whereas the five lawsuits filed by Fojo do. "If the cases are consolidated, our request won't be [considered]," he said.
The targeted date for the cases to be resolved is "as soon as possible," according to Fojo.
"A favorable outcome -- meaning if DESE loses the lawsuit -- would invalidate DESE's mask mandate," he said. "We would then try to use this decision to force the school districts involved in the lawsuits to rescind their mandates as well."
Interim Hingham Public Schools Supt. Gary Maestas and and School Committee Chair Kerry Ni declined to comment when contacted by the Hingham Anchor.