Public schools with “mask optional” policies risk losing immunity.

A.         The Choice

Boards of education in Ohio have been placed in a tough position to start the school year. Boards have been forced to choose whether to require masks for their students and employees. Schools were placed in this position because the state legislature effectively removed the power of the Governor and the Ohio Department of Health to issue mask mandates (and most other related health orders). 2021 Sub.S.B.  No. 22.

With this authority removed, the Ohio Department of Health can now only “recommend” that schools require masks for the upcoming school year. See, COVID-19 Health and Prevention Guidance for Ohio K-12 Schools, Ohio Department of Health (Rev. July 26, 2021). Some local health departments have more recently heightened this to “strongly recommend” full masking of all students since infections associated with the Delta variant have increased, just in time for the start of the school year. Mask Advisory Issued for All Residents Indoors Regardless of Vaccination Status, Franklin County Public Health Advisory (August 5, 2021).

The response by boards of education at public schools has been mixed. Some boards of education have appreciated the risk to students and employees articulated by local health authorities and have adopted a full masking requirement for the start of the 2021-2022 school year. Other boards have recognized the potential for an increased risk for the unvaccinated, including those age 11 and under who do not have access to a vaccine, and opted to require masks for everyone at the elementary level.

A surprising number of boards have opted for a completely voluntary mask policy, perhaps because they believe masking is a purely personal decision, or that the risks articulated by health departments and federal agencies are overstated. There’s been some healthy (and unhealthy) debate surrounding the issue, which has included a variety of reasons for schools opting to go “mask-optional.”

B.         Sovereign Immunity; Exceptions Allowing Claims

One reason that boards may feel confident in adopting a mask-optional policy is because boards of education enjoy state sovereign immunity for decisions made in the exercise of their governmental functions. R.C. 2744.02(A)(1). School employees enjoy similar immunity for decisions made within the scope of their duties. R.C. 2744.03(A)(6).

Importantly, however, sovereign immunity is not absolute and the decision to go mask-optional could expose a school board–or a school employee recommending such a policy–to an increased risk of liability.

To begin, sovereign immunity does not apply to contract claims, claims that arise from an employment relationship with the school, or claims brought by an employee related to his or her “conditions…of employment.” R.C. 2744.09(A)-(C). Sovereign immunity also does not apply to “civil claims based upon alleged violations of the constitution or statutes of the United States.” R.C. 2744.09(E).

Therefore, one could easily imagine a teacher or other school employee asserting a claim that the employment agreement has been violated due to a voluntary masking policy in a pandemic, or that the conditions of employment have been improperly altered, making the employee more vulnerable to infection. Such a claim could be bolstered by high infection rates in any given school or by the fact that most school districts in the state required masks for all students and staff just last school year.

Sovereign immunity could also be side-stepped by any aggrieved party by asserting a claim under a federal statute or the U.S. Constitution. The federal statute possibilities are numerous, but the Americans With Disabilities Act would be one leading example, as this law requires reasonable accommodations to be made for students and employees with disabilities. 29 C.F.R. Part 1630, et seq. Other claims could come through the “state-created danger” theory under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, especially given that school-age children in Ohio are required by law to attend school. See, DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189, 199-200 (1989)(“[W]hen the State takes a person into its custody and holds him there against his will, the Constitution imposes upon it a corresponding duty to assume some responsibility for his safety and general well-being”); see also, R.C. 3321.01(A)(1)(compelling students in Ohio to attend school).

Further, while school employees (such as superintendents and principals) enjoy immunity protections similar to those provided to boards of education, this immunity does not apply where “the employee’s acts or omissions were with malicious purpose, in bad faith, or in a wanton or reckless manner.” R.C. 2744.03(A)(6)(b). So, depending on the specific circumstances surrounding a risk of infection, or an actual transmission of the virus, there could be individual liability for school employees for school-level decisions that ignore a known risk, assuming the decision could reasonably be considered reckless, in bad faith or malicious.

In sum, there are very plausible exceptions to sovereign immunity for mask-optional policies.

C.         Additional Immunity for Covid-Related Claims; Similar Exceptions

Notably, the Ohio legislature provided schools with another layer of immunity for Covid-related claims in 2020 with House Bill 606. This was signed by Governor DeWine on September 14, 2020, and provides in pertinent part:

No civil action for damages for injury, death, or loss to person or property shall be brought against any person [including schools and state institutions of higher education] if the cause of action on which the civil action is based, in whole or in part, is that the injury, death, or loss to person or property is caused by the exposure to, or the transmission or contraction of, MERS-CoV, SARS-CoV, or SARS-CoV-2, or any mutation thereof. 2020 Am.Sub.H.B. No. 606, §2(A).

However, an exception to this law exists for reckless and intentional conduct, very similar to the exception for sovereign immunity above. Immunity under H.B. 606 does not apply if, “it is established that the exposure to, or the transmission or contraction of, any of those viruses or mutations was by reckless conduct or intentional misconduct or willful or wanton misconduct on the part of the person [or school] against whom the action is brought.” Id. “Reckless conduct” is defined in the law as:

Conduct by  which, with heedless indifference  to the consequences, the person disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the person’s conduct is likely to cause an exposure to, or a transmission or contraction of, MERS-CoV, SARS-CoV, or SARS-CoV-2, or any mutation thereof, or is likely to be of a nature that results in an exposure to, or a transmission or contraction of, any of those viruses or mutations. Id., §2(D)(3).

To be sure, the same law prevents health orders and recommendations from being introduced as evidence in tort actions. Id., §2(B). Even so, the infection rates and/or exclusion of students from the classroom because of necessary quarantining could be enough to prove that any given school district violated a duty of care to its students or employees, and that the act of implementing a mask-optional policy was reckless. This is especially true where a school continues with a mask-optional policy despite an ongoing or increasing risk.

Finally, the immunity under house Bill 606 is temporary and is due to expire on September 30, 2021, unless it is extended by the legislature. Id., §2(E).

In sum, the immunity laws that boards of education, superintendents and principals may be relying upon may not be as strong as they think when they adopt a district-wide mask-optional policy. While the decision is within a board of education’s discretion, it should be made with caution and an understanding of this exposure.

Mark Weiker, Esq., Student and Educator Rights Attorney, Albeit Weiker, LLP