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The woman behind Let Them Breathe; the fight against school mask mandates

Sharon McKeeman 02
Matthew Bowler
Sharon McKeeman, the founder of Let Them Breathe, speaks with KPBS during a protest against school COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Balboa Park in San Diego, Calif., Oct 18, 2021.

Let Them Breathe has gained national attention for its lawsuits against the state of California, its disruption of school board meetings and even its logo showing an unmasked smiling face emoji.

The group opposes mask mandates in schools and has plans to expand, both as a nonprofit organization and to fight vaccine requirements.

Let Them Breathe was started by Sharon McKeeman, a North County resident who describes herself as an “author, educator, artist, photographer, and homeschooling mama.” So far, the group has collected more than $150,000 in donations through its GoFundme website.

“We are a group of over 30,000 parents that are concerned about the effects of masking on their kids' mental health, their physical health, their social development and also their academic progress,” she told KPBS in an interview.

McKeeman's ride from relative obscurity to the national stage has been quick. She says the interviews, radio show, merchandise sales and lawsuits that come with Let Them Breathe make it feel like a full-time job. But she wouldn't say if she was taking a salary.

She created the GoFundme for Let Them Breathe in April to raise “money to take legal action against the state to end student mask mandates … we are seeking funding to help initiate a new lawsuit pertaining to masking and quarantining,” the website reads.

Money is also being raised through Let Them Breathe website sales of yard signs, hats, and t-shirts, some that read “My Body, My Choice.”

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Matthew Bowler
Sharon McKeeman, the founder of Let Them Breathe, speaks to parents who kept children home from school to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates in schools. Balboa Park in San Diego, Calif. Oct 18, 2021.

McKeeman said the proceeds will go to the group's lawsuit against the state to end student mask mandates.

“Unfortunately legal action is not cheap, so to bring these issues before a judge and have them settled in a court, instead of the chaos of public opinion, is expensive,” she said.

Let Them Breathe is represented by Aannestad Andelin & Corn, which specializes in litigation and coastal property rights cases.

McKeeman said she selected them because “the law firm is experienced with suing state agencies and successfully sued the state to reopen the schools in the spring.”

Let Them Breathe has requested that the state be required to pay their attorneys fees if they win their lawsuit.

If they win, McKeeman said Let Them Breathe would use the money to fund their next legal battle.

Kids in school

Though McKeeman’s website describes her as a “homeschooling mama,” she insists her fight against masks is personal, because her kids attend in-person classes.

“All my kids are in the public school system, there have been portions of time where they have been in charter, they were still in a publicly-funded classroom every week but they were home with me a couple days a week. So I did learn about homeschooling,” she said.

KPBS verified that all four of McKeeman’s children attend in-person schools in North County.

She said masking and restrictions took a mental toll on her kids and has heard the same from parents across the country.

“We’re hearing from parents with kids who have epilepsy, are hearing impaired, English language learners struggling to learn the English language when they can't see their teachers' mouths, hearing about anxiety, depression,” she said.

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Rich Van Every / Lightworks Creative
Undated photo of a group of people holding "Let Them Breathe" signs in protest of masks in schools. Sharon McKeeman, the founder of the organization stands in the middle next to a blowhorn.

But Lizeth Ma, a family psychologist specializing in children and adolescents, said she hears differently from kids.

“I have not had one kid in the last 21 months that has said, ‘I am so upset that I have to wear this darn mask,’” she said. “Yes it's uncomfortable, it's annoying ... it's not the issue. The issue is everything else that got stripped from everybody and all the additional stressors that we had.”

Ma said some children with medical conditions do struggle with masking more than others, and she has given a medical exemption to one of her clients with autism.

“It’s individualized and that’s why there are some exceptions to the rules,” she said. “But that’s also why a provider like myself, or a teacher, is always masked. To protect that child.”

Ma said many of the children she treats have found the masks to be a comfort or a source of protection.

“They feel safe with the mask. They say, ‘it's not for me, it's for them,’” she said. “They have brothers or sisters, older parents or grandparents. It’s become second nature for them.”

Science of masks

McKeeman cites studies that found masks harm children’s physical and mental health. But Rebecca Fielding-Miller, a UCSD epidemiologist, said some of the studies McKeeman relies on are not based on sound science.

Summary of Evidence on Masks and Children
Studies that Let Them Breathe claims back their argument about the physical and mental health on children.
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.

Many parents support masks in schools, and therefore don’t appreciate the loud voices that come from McKeeman’s group. That includes Kristen Beer, the administrator of Parents4PUSD, a group in Poway.

She said schools have a system in place for legitimate medical exemptions and said Parents4PUSD members are supporting school board decisions requiring masks through letters, emails and petitions.

“Letting them know, ‘Yes the people outside are loud and intimidating, but there are lots of us out there who appreciate when they make those hard decisions and stand up to those people and make the right decisions for the right reasons,’” she said.

The woman behind Let Them Breathe, the fight against school mask mandates

New nonprofit

Meanwhile, Let Them Breathe is expanding.

In July, McKeeman filed paperwork with the state to make Let Them Breathe a nonprofit corporation.

In response to KPBS' questions, she declined to disclose any details about its expenses.

McKeeman has also started a new group to fight vaccine mandates in schools.

“Let Them Choose. That is an initiative from that same community, but ... it already has a separate fundraiser for legal action to oppose forced COVID vaccines for students,” she said.

Last week, the group announced a lawsuit against San Diego Unified over its vaccine mandate, and its GoFundme has raised more than $34,000 so far.

Corrected: October 20, 2021 at 7:14 PM PDT
A sentence in a previous version of this story incorrectly inferred that Sharon McKeeman is herself a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the state brought by the group Let Them Breathe. Also, due to a typo, a quotation misrepresented the timeframe in which McKeeman's children were homeschooled.