PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Dan McKee signed an executive order Friday extending the use of masks in schools.
The extension came the same day a Superior Court judge ruled in favor of state leaders, leaving the mask mandate in place despite a legal challenge from a group of parents and grandparents.
The order was originally issued on Aug. 19 after McKee declared a disaster emergency that required teachers and students to wear masks in the classroom. It was executed after weeks of back and forth on the issue, as McKee initially believed the choice should be left up to the individual school districts.
The extension comes as COVID cases are on the rise in Rhode Island and neighboring Massachusetts.
The mask order was originally slated to expire on Nov. 13 and is being extended until Dec. 11. The declared state of emergency remains in effect until at least Nov. 27.
Also on Friday, the Rhode Island Superior Court denied a bid to overturn the mask mandate, stating that while the plaintiffs’ testimony on the impact of masks suffices to establish a finding of irreparable harm to children in school, the broader public health risk outweighs it.
“The court has no doubt that the plaintiffs are motivated by a legitimate desire to act in the best interest of their children,” Superior Court Associate Justice Jeffrey Lanphear wrote in his decision. “At the same time, the governor and Department of Health are tasked with protecting the health and safety of all Rhode Islanders, and have presented substantial evidence that the mask mandate is a reasonable and appropriate means to minimize the serious risk posed by COVID-19.”
“Even with the recognition that the wearing of masks creates some irreparable harm to students, that harm is significantly outweighed by the harm caused by the unmasked spread of the disease, particularly among children,” he continued.
A spokesperson for McKee said the governor is “gratified by the judge’s thorough and thoughtful decision.”
In a statement, the attorney representing the more than three dozen parents and grandparents who filed the suit said they will be reviewing their options for appeal.
“Of course we are disappointed in the decision which appears to give the governor and Department of Health unlimited powers overriding parents and their children’s health concerns,” the statement reads. “This is particularly true where there have been no public hearings to debate the efficacy of masks in schools in stopping the spread of COVID-19, or the harm being suffered by children in schools being forced to wear masks.”
“We are encouraged by the judge’s admonition that courts may not give to the Department of Health a ‘bottomless pit of deference’ to its emergency rules in the future,” the statement continued.
The Department of Health said there have been what they classify as three pediatric COVID-related deaths since the pandemic started locally in 2020. In each of those cases, however, COVID-19 was not the primary cause of death, according to state health officials.
McKee’s latest executive order will remain in effect until that date unless renewed, modified or terminated by a subsequent executive order.