Alabama House committee approves bill allowing parents to opt out of masking requirements

By: - April 12, 2023 6:01 pm
Lawmaker presents bill to committee of lawmakers.

Rep. Chip Brown, R-Hollinger’s Island, presents HB186, which would allow parents to opt-out of mask wearing in K-12 public schools, to the House Health committee on Apr. 12, 2023. (Alander Rocha/Alabama Reflector)

A bill that would allow parents to opt out of masking in K-12 public schools passed the House Health Committee on Wednesday.

The approval, coming on a voice vote, followed a 10-minute public hearing where some education groups voiced opposition to the legislation.

HB 186, sponsored by Chip Brown, R-Hollinger’s Island, would allow parents to opt out of mask wearing in schools, school functions, on a school bus or at a school bus stop by submitting a written request to the school or the local board of education.

Brown said this is not an “anti-school bill” or an “anti-masking bill.”

“What this is, is a parental rights bill,” he said. “It’s a bill that basically says, that as a parent, I should make the decision. Not the state, but me as parent.”

Legislative committee listens to bills being presented
House Health Committee members listen to presenters discuss HB186, which would allow parents to opt out of mask wearing policies on Apr. 12, 2023. (Alander Rocha/Alabama Reflector)

Bart Reeves, who oversees governmental relations for the Alabama Association of School Boards, opposed the bill, saying it would prevent local school districts from making decisions that best serve residents.

“Local control is the bedrock of the education system. It empowers communities to make decisions that best serve their unique needs, and also their unique interests,” he said.

Reeves said that school board members are either elected or appointed by an elected city council member. This bill sends a concerning message to communities, that “individuals’ preferences can override the collective decision made by the democratic process.”

“Whether it is discipline, the school dress code, recommended instruction, and in this example, school masks, and I could go on with many more, by allowing individuals to opt out of masks or mask mandates, or any group to opt out of any school policy, we undermine the very essence of local control,” he said. 

Kaycee Cavender, co-founder and co-director of Health Freedom Alabama, a group that pushed to ban so-called vaccine passports in 2021, said that this bill would restore parental rights. 

“During the last few years, we’ve saw the right of parents obliterated through the forced masking of their children,” Cavender said.

Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, asked if there was anything in the bill that would provide liability to the families who chose to opt out of mask wearing.

Brown said there is no way to assess liability because there is no way to tell who spread the virus in the first place.

“Perhaps I caught a cold from you or whatever, I’m not going to sue you for that. I can’t sue because there’s no determination that you were the person that gave me the virus in the first place,” Brown said.

Rep. Laura Hall, D-Birmingham, asked if Brown had conversations with parents who may have been likely to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Brown said that he doesn’t know that because he considers that a HIPAA violation.

“At some point we got away from that, it’s a HIPAA violation to ask about medical records, I’m not going to ask them when it’s been vaccinated or not. I think that’s your own personal business.”

HIPAA gives patients protections over who can look at and receive their health information. However, HIPAA protections only apply to health plans, health care clearinghouses, such as collection agencies, and health care providers that conduct certain health care transactions online. HIPAA does not prevent anyone from sharing their own health information to anyone.

The bill moves to the House of Representatives.

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Alander Rocha
Alander Rocha

Alander Rocha is a journalist based in Montgomery, and he reports on government, policy and healthcare. He previously worked for KFF Health News and the Red & Black, Georgia's student newspaper. He is a Tulane and Georgia alumnus with a two-year stint in the U.S. Peace Corps.