Pennsylvania’s North Allegheny School District and its board of directors face a proposed class action lawsuit that challenges the board’s decision to permit optional masking for students as of January 17, 2022.
The 41-page lawsuit, filed by four pseudonymous parents, alleges that the board’s decision making masking optional discriminates against and endangers students with disabilities who are at an increased risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19. The case contends that an optional masking policy forces the parents of students with disabilities to make the “shockingly unfair or unjust decision” to either pull their children out of valuable in-person learning or put them at a “quantifiably increased risk of physical harm” by keeping them in school.
According to the case, the failure of the district to provide children with disabilities with a reasonable accommodation such as universal masking amid the pandemic is “precisely the type of discrimination and segregation” the ADA and Rehabilitation Act are designed to prevent.
The lawsuit explains that as the COVID-19 transmission rate in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania increased from moderate to high in early August 2021, the school district implemented a universal masking policy in accordance with the school board policy and recommendations of health experts. Though the school board attempted to rescind the policy in favor of optional masking, the universal masking mandate was ultimately upheld until after the state’s municipal elections in November 2021, the suit relays. Per the complaint, the board voted 5-4 on December 8 to implement an optional masking policy to go into effect on January 17, 2022 regardless of the COVID-19 transmission rate in the county.
The lawsuit alleges the board’s optional-masking decision violates its own policy to safeguard students and staff by implementing “health guidelines and universal precautions” to minimize the transmission of diseases. According to the complaint, the optional masking policy fails to account for the fact that as many as 1,557 schoolchildren in the North Allegheny School District are “medically fragile disabled students” who require the protection of universal masking.
Per the case, students with moderate to severe asthma, chronic lung and health conditions, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, obesity, type-2 diabetes and weakened immune systems—i.e., those who might face a greater risk of complications or death should they contract COVID-19—make up a “significant portion” of the district’s student population.
The lawsuit notes that COVID-19 vaccines were only recently approved for children younger than 12, and the vaccines have been proven less effective for children with compromised immune systems. Thus, universal masking and social distancing are the most effective means to reduce COVID-19 transmission among unvaccinated and disabled students whose immune systems may produce a “less robust response” to the vaccine, the case states.
Further, the lawsuit argues that an optional masking policy “pits children against each other,” and places students with disabilities at an increased risk of injury and death. Moreover, the board’s exclusion of children with disabilities from public classrooms by failing to offer reasonable accommodations such as universal masking—which the suit notes was successfully implemented in the North Allegheny School District during the 2020-2021 school year—is discriminatory and violates federal law.
The case looks to represent current and future K-12 students who attend or wish to attend public school in the North Allegheny School District during the coronavirus pandemic and are unable to obtain a vaccine or for whom the vaccine is of limited efficacy due to their compromised immune system.
The proposed class also includes students who have a lung disease, including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or other chronic conditions associated with impaired lung function; heart disease; chronic liver or kidney disease; diabetes or other endocrine disorders; hypertension; compromised immune systems; blood disorders, including sickle cell disease; inherited metabolic disorders; history of stroke; neurological or developmental disability; cancer or cancer treatments; and/or muscular dystrophy or spinal cord injury.
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