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Attorney: Mask suit still viable

by Caitlan Butler | November 22, 2021 at 12:00 a.m.
El Dorado School Board members are seen during a special-called meeting in August, where they voted 4-3 to impose a universal mask mandate on ESD campuses. The mask mandate was lifted last week, but an attorney representing several parents in a suit against the district said the case is still viable. (News-Times file)

A lawsuit against the El Dorado School District will continue despite school board members lifting the district's mask mandate last week, an attorney representing several local parents said.

Greg Payne, of the Story Law Firm, said on Wednesday, Nov. 17, that the case filed against the ESD, Superintendent Jim Tucker and El Dorado School Board members regarding a mask mandate imposed on students at the start of the 2021/2022 school year is still viable even though board members voted unanimously to lift mask requirements last Tuesday.

The school board voted 4-3 in August to require all students, staff, faculty and visitors to wear masks in ESD campus common areas, during class transitions, on buses and in classrooms when social distancing wasn't possible. Students were permitted to take their masks off while outside or while eating or drinking in the cafeteria.

Last Tuesday, the school board voted unanimously to lift the district's mask mandate, instead opting to recommend masks for anyone on an ESD campus.

The board also empowered Tucker to reinstate mask requirements based on the seven-day COVID-19 positivity rate in Union County according to United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data. On Sunday, the CDC reported a local positivity rate of 10.92% from Nov. 11 through Nov. 17.

Payne represents local parents Luke Baston, Clifford O. Wilson III, Jamie Wilson and Karen Lynn Dunn in the suit.

He said since the district has maintained that it can reimpose the mask mandate, the case should continue.

"As long as they contend that they maintain the ability to reinstate a mask mandate at their discretion, the case is viable," he said in an email to the News-Times. "In this instance I believe that the El Dorado school district insists that it maintains that power, while we know that under Arkansas law they don't."

The lawsuit asserts that the ESD overstepped its authority when imposing the mask mandate in August. It alleges that the mandate violates the Arkansas Civil Rights Act of 1993 and seeks both a temporary restraining order to block the district from enforcing any mask mandate, as well as a permanent judgment on the legality of the district imposing such a mandate.

"What we are asking for is a declaratory judgment that the School District does not have that power over the constitutional rights of parents. As of today, the claim is still very much active," Payne said on Wednesday.

No updates to the case have been filed since court summons, which have yet to be served, were filed on Nov. 8, according to court records available online Sunday.

Tucker said last week that the school board's decision to lift the ESD's mask mandate was not influenced by the lawsuit.

"That lawsuit has zero bearing on the decision that was made today," he said last Tuesday. "Whether (the school board's decision) will or won't (affect the lawsuit) isn't a concern of mine. Doing what's best for our children is what's a concern of mine."


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