Hartford judge hears testimony on safety of masks in schools as parents seek to block face coverings rule

Nicholas Rondinone, Hartford Courant
·4 min read

A Hartford judge heard hours of testimony on the safety and efficacy of masks to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus Friday as he decides whether to grant an emergency injunction blocking a state requirement that students wear face coverings in schools.

In a daylong hearing on the injunction, Judge Thomas G. Moukawsher heard from both those downplaying the effectiveness of masks as well as those who said face coverings do not negatively impact children and slow the spread of the virus.

The hearing came several weeks after a group of parents and the CT Freedom Alliance sued the state’s education department and top officials to lift the requirement that children wear masks in schools out of fear of the harms they pose to children both mentally and physically.

The assertions in the lawsuit are in direct conflict with scientific evidence that shows that mask-wearing slows the spread of COVID-19. Lawyers for the state have argued there is no evidence to support the claim that masks are dangerous and that in fact masks are protecting students as they attend in-person classes.

Quick to send students home for virtual learning in the spring, Connecticut education officials outlined extensive measures to safely return students to school this fall. Key among those measures was a requirement that students and staff wear masks in school.

Moukawsher set Friday’s hearing to get testimony from two expert witnesses called by the plaintiffs, as well as the state’s witnesses, before ruling on the request for an injunction. The state has filed a motion to dismiss the case, which Moukawsher will address after the injunction.

Lawyers for the parents and CT Freedom Alliance first called on a Los Angeles-based psychiatrist, who said that masks can inhibit development, cause stress and led to other complications for children.

“I am greatly concerned by what I am seeing … children who are forced to wear masks in a school settings as well as outside the school settings are in imminent harm,” said Dr. Mark McDonald. McDonald also noted that the risk of oxygen deprivation can led to “permanent neurological damage in children, which we will not be able to address because the window will have passed.”

The state questioned McDonald’s beliefs in masks and the government response to the pandemic. McDonald said he believes that a healthy person confers no benefits to others when wearing a mask.

The plaintiff’s second witness, Knut Whittkowski, a New York-based epidemiologist with 35 years in the field, said he reviewed scores of studies and could not find evidence that masks were effective outside a health care setting.

“I went through all the literature I could find, and all the literature I was presented and I could not find convincing evidence on the effectiveness of surgery masks or bandannas or other masks worn in non-health care settings in general," Whittkowski said. “And in particular, I couldn’t find evidence for the effectiveness of mask wearing by children.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote in mid-July that a recent study had shown two COVID-19-positive hair stylists did not pass on the virus to any of their clients, despite interacting at close-range. The stylists both wore masks while interacting with clients.

“The finding adds to a growing body of evidence that cloth face coverings provide source control — that is, they help prevent the person wearing the mask from spreading COVID-19 to others,” the CDC wrote.

The state highlighted an interview Whittkowski previously gave early in the pandemic in which he said students should continue to mingle normally in schools as the disease spreads to build herd immunity.

Despite the plaintiffs' attorney questioning his credentials in mental health, the state had Dr. Robert Dudley, a New Britain pediatrician who serves as the city school’s medical advisor, testify to say he was unaware of any issues with students wearing masks.

“I don’t believe that mask wearing in general causes an unnecessary burden on children’s mental health,” said Dudley, who serves as the head of the state’s chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Then the state brought forth Stephanie Knutson, a school health administrator from the state’s education department, who helped craft some of the language in the public school COVID-19 guidance. Knutson testified to authenticate an education department document that showed of 118 boards of education that responded, 221 mask exemptions had been granted.

In an argument over the document that Knutson authenticated, the state said it shows that there is no emergency to have the injunction issued because mask exemptions are being granted.

Moukawsher said plans to issue an ruling on the matter on Monday.

Nicholas Rondinone can be reached at nrondinone@courant.com.

———

©2020 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

Visit The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.) at www.courant.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.