Another year of crossing a covid-19 affected landscape has some school administrators apparently preparing to push back mandates related to the pandemic.
A state-issued mask warrant for K-12 schools that went into effect earlier this month has sparked several lawsuits that have been filed across Pennsylvania by parents and lawmakers. The lawsuits have caught the attention of members of the Hempfield area school board, who last week expressed interest in joining a pending lawsuit or filing their own against the warrant.
The lawsuits largely question whether Alison Beam, Pennsylvania’s acting health secretary, has the authority to issue the warrant. The state’s decision to require face coverings came after several districts began the school year and after state officials said the decision to mask themselves would be left to school boards.
“They can bring a complaint and voice their concerns in court about what they think is incorrect or correct,” said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, of school boards filing complaints.
In Pennsylvania, at least two lawsuits have been filed in Commonwealth Court since the mask warrant came into effect on September 7. According to Paul Socolar, spokesperson for the Education Law Center with offices in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the lawsuits have so far been largely filed by parents. instead of school boards.
The first complaint was brought by Pro Tempore Senate Speaker Jake Corman, R-Center, and Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford. Among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are parents from three regional school districts – Butler Area and Slippery Rock in Butler County, and Wyomissing Area in Berks County – and two private Christian schools.
The emergency request, submitted Sept. 3, says an injunction is needed to “prevent immediate and irreparable harm.” He states that the mandate denies the right to free and appropriate education and also disrupts a child’s education. The injunction suggested that the implementation of the mandate would be chaotic because several parents are opposed to it.
The lawsuit is making its way through the court system and plaintiffs and defendants are filing briefs. However, the lawsuit has apparently opened the door for school districts to take action against the warrant.
At a meeting last week at the Hempfield School District, attorney Michael Korns suggested that if board members were to take action that evening, his recommendation would have been to file an amicus brief. in Commonwealth Court in support of Corman’s trial. Korns added that briefs on the case will likely be accepted in the coming weeks.
However, the members of the council did not immediately proceed with the filing of the brief. Instead, they voted to meet with Korns at a later date to discuss their options.
In Lancaster County, members of the Ephrata area school district board of directors also considered adding their district as a petitioner in the lawsuit, according to Lancaster Online. This week, however, board members ultimately decided not to move forward with the action, citing the possible repercussions the school district could face if they join the lawsuit.
Three school districts have joined Corman’s lawsuit, officials said on Friday, including Penncrest in Crawford County, Chestnut Ridge in Bedford County and West York in York County.
For Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University, the process of districts eventually adding their names to Corman’s trial makes sense. The process would streamline courts receiving multiple lawsuits on the same subject, requiring them to consolidate or pursue one depending on the court system.
“They won’t be arguing the same issue everywhere at the same time,” Ledewitz said.
He noted that districts adding their name to an existing costume could help keep costs to a minimum. It was not immediately clear how much it would cost the districts to become involved in the litigation, but DiRocco with PASA said the districts “generally have a fairly strong expense account for legal fees.”
In addition to the Corman costume, a second legal action was filed Sept. 8 by parents of children in the state’s school district. The costume states that Beam does not have the legal authority to issue the warrant and that the order does not allow religious or philosophical objections.
Among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, identified only by their initials, are parents of students from the Fox Chapel Area School District in Allegheny County, Central Bucks and Pennsbury in Bucks County, Greater Mechanicsburg in Cumberland County and Parkland School District in Lehigh County.
As lawsuits involving Beam’s authority progress through the legal system, several organizations in Pennsylvania have offered their views on the matter.
The Center for Education Law applauded the mandate of the mask. In a statement, center officials said the mandate would create safe learning environments during the pandemic while granting appropriate exceptions for students and staff with eligible disabilities. The center was one of many organizations that lobbied the state to issue a mask warrant.
“The mandate is an essential step in supporting the resumption of in-person learning. It is absolutely the legal rights of the Department of Health, ”said Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center, noting that districts should comply with the guidelines and the law.
On the other side, officials from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association said they believe the state should not impose or prohibit specific health and safety measures measures. They added that throughout the pandemic, those decisions were largely left to school boards.
“We believe that local school boards remain the best decision makers in their communities,” Nathan Mains, CEO of the organization, said in a statement. “Our members remain committed to the health and safety of their students and staff and while they have welcomed the expertise and guidance of state and federal agencies, they are in the best position to assess and respond quickly to conditions. constantly evolving in their own communities. “
Still, officials said the warrant was issued by Beam “under his authority to issue health directives.” Officials reminded districts of their legal obligations with respect to the directive and urged them to consult local district attorneys on compliance.
A spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association did not return multiple messages seeking comment.
Pennsylvania isn’t the only state to see lawsuits over mask warrants.
In late August, at least 14 states saw lawsuits filed for or against masks in schools, the Associated Press reported.
For DiRocco, the actions taken in the form of prosecutions and warrant orders reflect the anxiety, acrimony and frustration felt by the community.
“But from my perspective, unless we all come together… and do it the right way, it’s going to continue for a long time,” said DiRocco. “Either we have to pull ourselves together… or it will be next year and we’re going to fight for the same things. “