LACONIA — A school board member is demanding that the school district rescind its COVID face mask regulation, saying that the order is illegal.
Dawn Johnson said at Tuesday’s board meeting that requiring students to wear face masks is a violation of a state law which limits the use of child restraint practices in schools and treatment facilities.
“We are in violation of this law. It restricts a child from breathing as they should be,” she told the board.
Current school policy requires that students and staff wear face masks if they cannot maintain 6 feet of physical distance.
Johnson alleged that the mask policy is illegal because the public health statute she cited prohibits schools from doing anything that obstructs “a child’s respiratory airway or impairs the child’s breathing or respiratory capacity or restricts the movement required for normal breathing” and further “forbids pushing on or into the child’s mouth, nose, eyes, or any part of the face or involves covering the face or body with anything, including soft objects …”
Johnson also noted Gov. Chris Sununu’s ending of the COVID mask mandate last month as a further reason that the requirement in the schools be lifted.
Johnson rejected School Board Chairman Heather Lounsbury’s suggestion that the matter be tabled until the board’s next meeting scheduled for May 18.
“I’m making the motion now,” Johnson said.
Board member Joe Cormier said the statute was enacted years before the pandemic and questioned its relevance to the School District’s policies for a public health emergency like COVID.
“It’s still the law,” Johnson shot back. “We still have to follow the law.”
Then, acting on a motion by Cormier, the board voted 6-1 to table the matter.
That prompted local resident Douglas Teegarden to scold the board for not acting on Johnson’s motion.
”The School Board is willing to violate state law for personal convenience or political preference over its responsibility of the children it claims to serve,” he said. He said if the board did not rescind the mask requirement he would consult an attorney about bringing legal action against the School District.
When Teegarden continued to speak during the portion of the meeting designated for comments from board members, Lounsbury ruled him out of order and told Teegarden to either “sit down and be quiet, or leave.”
The head of the state office which oversees child welfare matters criticized trying to apply the child protection statute in a way that was never intended.
“RSA 126-U is not relevant to the public health guidance of wearing masks to prevent the spread of a very dangerous virus,” Moira O’Neill, the state’s child advocate, said Wednesday. “There is very clear evidence that mask wearing is the number one most effective measure in preventing viral spread.”
She further said employing the statute in the face mask debate undermines the purpose for which the law was enacted.
“We further regret any attempt to apply RSA 126-U to make this kind of argument because it diminishes the importance and intent to protect children from dangerous physical restraint,” she said.
O’Neill said the intent of the law is clearly to prevent instances when undo physical restraint is used on children who are throwing tantrums or exhibiting other behavioral issues.
She pointed out that the statute defines restraint as “bodily physical restriction, mechanical devices, or any device that immobilizes a person or restricts the freedom of movement” of any part of their body.
“Masks don’t restrain a child from doing anything, except eating or drinking,” O’Neill said.
Barrett M. Christina, the executive director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association, also said the statute was never intended to apply to mask coverings.
The law was enacted in 2010 and amended in 2014, he noted.
“This law is intended to deal with significant behavioral concerns,” said Christina, who is also an attorney.
This makes the second time Johnson has attacked the mask mandate. She first called for its removal last Aug. 18.
Johnson has previously said masks harm students emotionally and cause harmful physical side effects, as well as infringing on people’s constitutional rights.
Last August, the School Board unanimously approved a set of guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic, including requiring students and school staff to wear cloth face masks when they cannot maintain 6 feet of physical distance from each other. The requirement is based on the guidance issued by the state Department of Education.
Johnson voted in favor of those guidelines early last August and made no comment about the mask-wearing requirement at that time, according to the minutes of the meeting.