Suit Filed Against Warren County School District to Strengthen COVID-19 Mask Policy

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ERIE, Pa. – A group of parents and students in the Warren County School District filed suit against the district on Monday, asking a federal judge to put an end to the district policy that allows students to opt-out of wearing masks with no medical documentation.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Erie. The defendants named in the suit are the Warren County School District, the WCSD School Board as an entity, and each member of the school board as an individual.

The plaintiffs include nine minors, eight of whom are WCSD students, and their parents. One or more of the students either have disabilities and/or are under the age of 12 and unable to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

The suit stems from the action taken at the Sept. 13 school board meeting. That night, the board voted to adopt a measure that would allow parents to claim an exemption from the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s indoor mask order without substantiation from a medical professional.

Plaintiffs are seeking an immediate temporary restraining order “on an emergency basis.”

Ultimately, the plaintiffs would like the court to issue an injunction “to enjoin the Board from enforcing the mask-optional policy adopted on Sept. 13, 2021, and to restore the status quo that existed prior to the Board’s vote . . . and from taking any other action to enforce such policy that is not in compliance with applicable law, and to restore the status quo of universal masking and requiring parents who want an exception for their children to submit verifiable medical documentation from an actual medical provider for the student of any medical or mental harm created to their children by wearing a mask while in a school bus and while attending school.”

NOT RECOMMENDED
Multiple board members stated prior to the action on Sept. 13 that three different solicitors had recommended the board not adopt the measure.

“We’ve spoken with three solicitors,” Donna Zariczny, the Board President, said. “Our human resource solicitor, our student service solicitor and our general solicitor, and not one of our solicitors are recommending this direction. I think we should uphold the laws and the regulations that are put before us, because as a legislative body. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”

The “recommended action”, put forth by board member Arthur Stewart, a lawyer himself, disagreed with the solicitors.

Presented as a “Letter announcing compliance with the DOH order,” the measure stated that if wearing a face covering “causes or exacerbates a medical or mental condition” an exception form must be submitted to the district.

“At the current time the order does not state a requirement that the medical or mental condition must be substantiated by a medical professional,” Arthur Stewart’s letter states. “However, in the future, if the Order is modified to require substantiation by a medical professional it will be necessary for you to provide that substantiation in order to continue the exception.”

In a letter dated Sept. 10, and confirmed again via email with yourdailylocal.com, the Pennsylvania Department of Education said that school entities that allow parents to claim, without evidence, that the student has a medical or mental health condition that exempts the student from wearing a face covering are “not in compliance” with the state order.

WARNINGS ONLY
The suit also claims that the district is in violation of the CDC’s order from Jan. 29 pertaining to masking on public transportation.

During its Aug. 30 meeting, the board voted 5-3 to only issue warnings for those students who don’t wear a mask on district transportation.

“The WCSD is acting in direct violation of the Federal requirements under the Jan. 29, 2021 Order of the CDC requiring students to wear masks while traveling on school buses,” the suit states. “Specifically designed to eliminate school district’s and parent’s choices for optional masking in contradiction to medical and scientific studies and the requirements of the CDC designed to protect children in schools, employees, parents and the community.”

Any policy that only issues unlimited warnings without any disciplinary consequences is “rendered meaningless,” according to the lawsuit.

The suit was filed by Pittsburgh-based attorney Kenneth R. Behrend.