A group called Free NJ Kids has filed a federal lawsuit that seeks to bar Gov. Phil Murphy and school districts from possibly reinstating mask mandates for children and isolating them in plexiglass shields when school starts again in the fall.

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Princeton-based attorney Bruce Afran said that because school children began returning to in-person learning earlier this year, they have been forcibly masked all day except for a few short mask breaks and during recess, while being ordered to maintain 6 feet of social distancing whenever possible.

He said the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Newark, asserts that these orders “violate the First Amendment rights to speech and association and privacy of New Jersey school children.”

According to Afran, masking requirements limit the ability of kids to communicate non-verbally, using different facial expressions like smiles and frowns, which is essential to human speech.

“For children to be masked all day and have their teachers masked all day prevents basic communication developing between children and between children and teachers,” he said.

He noted the lawsuit states masking of children also “chills” expression and the ability to form friendships and associations because normal facial cues are lost and “the keeping of children isolated in plexiglass is an alienating experience, it’s a type of imprisonment within a classroom.”

Afran also said keeping kids 6 feet apart from each other is completely unnatural, an experiment of sorts never attempted in the U.S. before, and no one has studied what the effects on children will be developmentally.

“The lawsuit says these are not only in violation of basic fundamental liberty rights of children, but there’s no rational basis even for them because children are not known to be susceptible in any real way to COVID," he said.

He also noted all teachers can either get vaccinated or take other protective measures.

Murphy's office declined to comment on pending litigation.

Afran said the lawsuit is being filed now, even though the governor has rescinded masking requirements, because Murphy has reserved the right to reinstate the orders and he gave school districts the right to independently impose masking requirements if and when they feel it’s necessary.

Burlington County high school student Kali Bodine, a plaintiff in the case, said after she was forced to start wearing a mask, “asthma attacks were a little more frequent along with a couple of panic attacks, since I felt like the masks were kind of smothering.”

She said mask wearing has also made it difficult to understand what her teachers were saying and it also made it hard to know how her classmates felt because she couldn’t see the expressions.

Kelly Lepine Ford, the parent leader of the Free NJ kids group, said this is a vitally important issue.

“When I would drive past elementary schools and see all the kids separated in masks, walking, it was almost like a prison yard. They weren’t playing anymore,” she said.

She said parents have also shared stories about their children chewing on their masks all day, suffering with nose bleeds and even vomiting while continuing to wear masks because they were afraid they would get in trouble if they removed them.

The complaint names Murphy, State Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan and New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli, and also seeks to bar mandatory COVID testing without parental consent.

Afran also argued the governor does not have the statutory power to do what he has done because under the Administrative Procedure Act, public hearings must be held before rules limiting children’s right can be executed.

“The only way we believe the state can impose such rules is if it demonstrates a compelling scientific need to keep children uniquely isolated and masked," he argues.

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