Montco judge rejects lawsuit over remote learning, county schools to go virtual Monday

Upper Dublin High School in Montgomery County. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

Upper Dublin High School in Montgomery County. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

Montgomery County students are heading for at least two weeks of all-virtual school after a judge denied a legal challenge to the county’s remote-learning order.

The Montco Board of Health voted last week to suspend in-person instruction at all K-12 schools in the county starting Monday, Nov. 23. The order is intended to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

On Wednesday, three county residents sued over the remote-learning mandate, arguing the board violated Pennsylvania’s open meetings law by failing to provide sufficient notice of the vote, by limiting public comment, and by holding a private meeting the night prior to the public vote.

But Montgomery County Common Pleas Court Judge Richard P. Haaz wasn’t convinced, noting that lawmakers in Harrisburg passed an April amendment to that law — known as the “Sunshine Act” — loosening the notice and comment requirements during the pandemic.

“Petitioners failed to satisfy their burden of proof that Respondents violated the Sunshine Act,” Haaz wrote in his six-page opinion.

Haaz also noted that all five Board of Health members testified that the private meeting held on the eve of the vote was to share information, not for the purposes of making a decision.

The plaintiffs took the news in stride. “I do not view this as a total loss,” said plaintiff John Niehls in a Facebook video posted immediately after the ruling. “Because what we did accomplish is we did send a message to the county that we are not going to stand by and just accept them shutting down our schools.”

Niehls added that his legal team is already preparing to file another lawsuit, arguing that the Board of Health did not have the authority to issue an order requiring schools to move online.

Niehl’s legal team has been paid for by a crowdfunding campaign that has raised over $10,000 in the last week.

Montgomery County’s order follows a similar decision in Philadelphia to bar in-person learning at the city’s high schools and colleges through at least the end of the year. The School District of Philadelphia also recently decided to delay a post-Thanksgiving return to the classroom for some younger children.

The Pa. Department of Education has suggested that schools in counties where there are “substantial” amounts of COVID-19 transmission should conduct all classes online.

Currently, according to guidelines set by the Pa. Department of Health, Philadelphia and its four collar counties are seeing “substantial” transmission.

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