NOTE: This story has been updated to provide more specific information on pediatric COVID-19 deaths in Rhode Island.
GLOCESTER, R.I. (WPRI) — Sixteen parents and grandparents have filed a lawsuit against Gov. Dan McKee over his statewide school mask mandate.
The complaint, filed in Providence Superior Court on Thursday, lists the names and stories of parents and grandparents who live in Glocester, Smithfield, North Smithfield and Warwick. Some parents said they’ve chosen to home-school their kids rather than send them to school in masks, which they believe negatively impact their children’s physical and mental well-being.
“I will not send my child to an establishment being run like a prison,” Aimee Sayers wrote, claiming there have been no pediatric COVID deaths in Rhode Island.
The R.I. Department of Health has confirmed to 12 News there have been what they classify as three pediatric COVID-related deaths since the pandemic started locally in 2020. In each of those cases, COVID-19 was not the primary cause of death, health officials said.
“The cure is worse than the disease,” wrote plaintiff Jessica LeBlanc of Smithfield. “The decisions made are clearly not for the benefits of the children or data but rather other factors such as money, personal biases, and need for control.”
Other parents said the masks made it difficult for their children to breathe or communicate.
“Wearing of the masks interfered in his ability to hear and sometimes understand the lessons being
taught,” argued Cheryl and Zachary Greathouse, grandparents from Glocester.
Danielle Ferguson of North Smithfield, another plaintiff, said she told her son to wear the mask below his nose at school whenever he could, which conflicts with guidance from health experts.
The suit alleges McKee violated state law and the state constitution in both signing the new K-12 mask mandate and also declaring a new state of emergency due to the delta variant.
The General Assembly passed a law earlier this year curtailing some of McKee’s executive powers, but its leaders have not objected to him issuing the emergency order in August based on the delta variant.
The plaintiffs argue there is a double standard, since the state no longer requires blanket mask-wearing in places like restaurants and retail shops. Under pressure from parents, teachers and health experts, McKee in August announced all people in K-12 schools would have to wear masks for the start of the school year regardless of vaccination status.
The suit also calls into question the science of mask-wearing, which state and national experts have repeatedly said helps in slowing the spread of COVID-19. The delta variant is considered much more contagious than the original strain, and children under 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccination.
“Often, it appears that those at highest risk for the effects of COVID-19, the elderly, the obese, and those with multiple comorbidities, are willing to force the young and healthy, who are little affected by COVID-19, to suffer these irreparable harms on unproven science,” the complaint reads.
It continues, “The legitimate concerns of these parents are often dismissed or worse, ridiculed. There
are numerous parents who can share similar stories and concerns for their children, but do not for fear of retaliation in their work and community. These plaintiffs are aware of hundreds more parents who have shared similar stories and concerns, but who are reluctant to come forward.”
The group of parents is asking the court to declare McKee’s actions unlawful and render the mandate null and void.
The attorney representing the group, Gregory Piccirilli, also represents the Glocester School Committee, which in August said it would explore the legality of the mask mandate. He separately filed an open meetings complaint against the R.I. Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, which approved a mask mandate shortly before McKee signed his own order.
“These plaintiffs are aware that they will be attacked for their speaking out on this issue, by the press and the public, but have chosen to take a brave stand against what they perceive as collective group-think which has infected this debate,” Piccirilli wrote in the suit. “They do so because they feel that their children’s very future is at stake.”
McKee’s press secretary, Alana O’Hare, declined to comment on the pending litigation.