Montco residents raise $10,000 to sue the county over virtual school order

Cheltenham High School

Cheltenham High School (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Three Montgomery County residents are suing to stop county officials from forcing all schools there to move entirely online for two weeks.

The county’s Board of Health voted Nov. 13 to require all K-12 public and private school students to learn virtually from Nov. 23 to Dec. 6, in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The vote followed a contentious meeting a day earlier when dozens of parents and residents spoke out against the idea.

“What you are proposing is causing irreparable damage to countless children and their families,” Elizabeth Weir, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said at the Nov. 12 meeting. “ And the callousness with which you are talking about it makes it seem so simple to return to virtual learning … it is astounding in its arrogance.”

The plaintiffs also include Kaitlin Derstine and John Niehls, head of the Coventry Christian Schools in Pottstown.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday, hopes to have the decision invalidated by claiming that county officials violated Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act by failing to provide 24 hours notice of the Nov. 13 meeting.

It also alleges a number of other violations of the Sunshine Act by the county, including not publishing notice of the vote in a newspaper and limiting public comment.

The suit is being funded by Niehls’ crowdfunding campaign, which has raised more than $10,000 in the last five days. 

“I am not a Covid denier….I AM absolutely committed to science and data,” Niehls wrote on his GoFundMe post.  “And right now, ALL available science and data shows this virus is not a threat to kids and young people and that it is not being spread in our schools.”

A hearing in the case is scheduled for Friday morning, according to the plaintiff’s attorney Wally Zimolong, who said he expects Judge Richard Haaz to issue a ruling before the school closure order takes effect Monday.

On Thursday, Montgomery County officials stood by their decision.

“We recognize that a number of parents may be unhappy with the decision of the Board of Health,” a county spokesperson wrote in an email. “However, as their legal filings indicate, the Board possesses the legal authority to take this action, and they instead seek to attack the process by which this order was issued. We are confident that this attack will fail.”

Montgomery County’s order follows Philadelphia’s decision 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 bringing some young children back to the classroom, which was scheduled to begin after Thanksgiving.

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

Currently, Philadelphia and its four collar counties are seeing “substantial” transmission.

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