School boards maintain power to require masks, after Commonwealth Court dismisses parents’ lawsuit

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A mother wearing a face mask adjusting a face mask on her son before he goes to school

A mother and child on their way to school during the pandemic (Sviatlanka.yanka/Big Stock)

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court has dismissed a lawsuit that argued local school boards do not have the power to implement mask requirements.

Commonwealth Court Judge Christine Fizzano Cannon said on Thursday that the lawsuit, filed by nine parents against five school districts across the state in February 2022, was moot because the districts no longer require masks.

The suit is one of many over the last two years coming from both sides of the debate around masking — some parents across the Philly suburbs sued their districts for making masks optional in early 2022.

Cannon’s ruling is “very good for school districts,” said attorney Peter Amuso on Friday. Amuso represented the Pennsbury School District in Bucks County, which had been named in the case.

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“This one attack against their power is over and they continue to have the flexibility that they need on a local level,” Amuso said. “They’re locally elected bodies and they need the flexibility to deal with things on a local basis.”

The group of parents sued state Secretary of Education Noe Ortega, arguing that he had “misinterpreted the law” when he said school districts could continue to require masks after the state lifted its mandate.

The parents also sued Pennsbury School District, in Bucks County, for implementing mask requirements at the height of the coronavirus pandemic and keeping it a month after the state lifted its mandate in January.

The parents alleged that masks negatively impacted their kids’ mental health and academic success. Some said their children were bullied for not wearing masks.

They argued that Pennsbury, which has more than 9,600 students, and the other districts “[lacked] legal authority” to require students, staff, and visitors to wear COVID-19 safety masks.

Pennsbury officials disagreed. The state legislature “has granted local school boards broad power to protect students based on local conditions,” Amuso said.

Pennsbury administrators reviewed COVID-19 data in the area and across the country and consulted with the district’s physician before they decided to extend their mask requirements, superintendent Thomas Smith said.

It was a “delicate balance,” Smith said. “We had a group of parents of students who had complex medical needs, and they were worried. And we wanted to support that… In addition to our teachers.”

Smith said district officials are pleased with the judge’s ruling.

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“We think that it shows that the districts were in the right space when they made the decisions that we made, in the effort to protect the safety of all of our students and staff,” Smith said.

The parents can still try to appeal the court’s decision. They can ask the state Supreme Court if it would accept an appeal, and would have to within the next 30 days, Amuso said.

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