Court Concludes, for TRO, that Federal Disability Law Does Require School Districts to Mandate Masks

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From Judge Marilyn Horan’s opinion Monday in Doe 1 v. N. Allegheny School Dist. (which takes the opposite view from today’s decision I note below):

The timing of this TRO motion has left this Court with limited options. School was set to resume tomorrow [Jan. 18] with a masking optional policy. The Court’s ability to conduct a full TRO analysis has been limited to the briefing and argument of the parties. This case and claims are better addressed following a period where the parties have conducted discovery and/or potentially undertaken the proper administrative routes. The prudent and practical approach, given the potential negative impacts on the putative Plaintiffs’ health and education, is that a reasonable period of maintaining the status quo is necessary.

At this stage, the School District has offered the accommodation of cyber school to students who are immunocompromised. The School Board’s proffer of the cyber school accommodation fails to account for the impact to the immunocompromised students’ educational needs and potential family needs to assist their homebound children. In addition to providing mask guidance and information on community spread, the CDC has also advised that “[s]tudents benefit from in-person learning, and safely returning to in-person instruction continues to be a priority.”

In weighing this accommodation, the Court finds, for purposes of this TRO only, that effecting a cyber school only option upon immunocompromised students when faced with optional masks versus burdening the District with students conducting universal masking is not a reasonable accommodation and such violates the spirit of the ADA as enacted by Congress. The School Board’s proffer of the cyber school accommodation fails to account for the impact to the immunocompromised students’ educational needs and potential family needs to assist their homebound children. The Court cannot say, at this stage, that such accommodation meets the protections provided for under the ADA and Section 504….

Both the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act require Plaintiffs to establish that: “(1) they are qualified individuals with a disability within the meaning of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act or ADA; (2) they will be excluded from participation in or denied benefits of such services, programs, or activities of the public entity; and (3) their exclusion, denial of benefits, or discrimination occurred by reason of their disability.” The ADA prohibits discrimination that includes “a failure to make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures, when such modifications are necessary to afford such goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations to individuals with disabilities.”

When a state entity, like a school board, fails to make reasonable modifications to its facilities and practices, a party may sue the school board by bringing a claim known as a failure to accommodate claim. A failure-to-accommodate claim differs from other ADA claims in that the plaintiff is not required to show that his injury was the result of purposeful discrimination….

For the purposes of their ADA and Section 504 claims, Plaintiffs and Defendants both agree that Plaintiffs are qualified individuals with disabilities. At the September 22, 2021 Board meeting, the Board reimplemented a mask mandate, based upon express criteria, one of which was a benchmark provision for universal masking based upon when the community transmission rate was at a rate of “substantial” or “high.” As of September 22, 2021, the Delta variant was circulating amongst the community with a community transmission rate of 513 cases per day and a 6.0% positivity rate. As a consequence, for the majority of the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years to date, masks have been mandated within the District. Although wearing masks in the District has been inconvenient and controversial, this mask mandate status has been attained and maintained within the District without unreasonable expenditure or difficulty.

On December 8, 2021, despite the fact that the community transmission rate was measured at a positivity rate of 10.2% of a total of 3,277 infections for the week beginning December 5, 2021 and still within the “high” category, the Board voted to make masks optional within the District beginning January 18, 2022, conditioned upon whether the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s mask mandate was lifted and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s stay order was no longer in effect. As of December 10, 2021, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacated the Department of Health’s mask mandate. Thus, the mask optional policy would become effective in the District on January 18, 2022.

The December 8, 2021 Board action also removed the provision that masks were to be required to be worn within the District whenever the community transmission rate was within the “substantial” or “high” categories. The Board provided no explanation for why it decided to lift the mask mandate when the transmission rate was in a category of “high” or for why it removed the community transmission rate categories of “substantial” and “high” as benchmarks for when to require masking within the District.

Presently, since September 22, 2021, the Omicron variant has emerged. The Omicron variant is even more highly transmissible than the Delta variant. As such, the community transmission rate is currently at 3,500 infections per day and a 37.1% positive rate, which is six times higher than the positivity rate on September 22, 2021, when the Board reinstated the mask mandate and established criteria for when masks should be worn in the District based upon rates of community spread. The transmission classification remains at its highest category of “high.”

At this early stage in the litigation and with the little record yet developed, it is curious that, while the Board determined in September 2021 that mandating masks, based upon the transmission rate categories of “substantial” and “high,” was manageable, appropriate, and reasonable, but that in December 2021, when the transmission rates were increased and the category was still at a status of “high,” that the Board voted to eliminate the benchmark and make masks optional. Beyond December and in light of the proliferation of the Omicron variant, which has resulted in significantly increased numbers of infections within the population, with particular increases in infection rates for children, it is concerning that the District has not acted to reinstate the masking mandate and transmission rate categories to avoid the optional masking policy’s January 18, 2022 effective date.

Turning to the Plaintiffs in this case, Child Doe 1 is alleged to have medical conditions that can be classified as immunocompromised, which presents legitimate concerns and risks to health and life from COVID-19 exposure and infection. The Plaintiff has alleged that significant expert opinions exist within the medical and infectious disease fields to support that a layered approach, which includes vaccination, masking, quarantining, contract tracing, social distancing, and increased building ventilation are all required to effectively reduce the spread of COVID-19. It is the combination of these measures that make them effective and, without any one of them, individuals with disabilities, like Plaintiffs and those similarly situated, are at increased risk of contracting the virus and severe illness or death.

Plaintiffs allege that the increased risk of infection due to optional masking within the District creates a barrier to attending in-person classes with their non-immunocompromised peers. The Plaintiffs also allege that the District has failed to make reasonable accommodations for them to access educational services and has placed them at increased risk of physical harm. The Board has provided no explanation for whether it took into consideration any needed accommodations for disabled students in the District when it made the decision to lift the school mask mandate.

Plaintiffs, John and Jane Doe 1, make claims on behalf of Child Doe 1, as an immunocompromised student, plus claims for a class of similarly situated students. The record has not yet been developed to ascertain whether the asserted class will be qualified or have standing. However, at this stage the court will consider that Child Doe 1 is immunocompromised and that John and Jane Doe 1 on behalf of Child Doe 1 have sufficiently established a likelihood of success on their claim that the District’s optional masking policy has the effect of excluding Child Doe 1 from in-person attendance at public school or has otherwise denied Child Doe 1 the opportunity to participate in the in-person services of the District and that any such exclusion is based upon Child Doe 1’s disabilities.

In December, the District removed the benchmark that it had established and implemented for mask mandates when the community transmission category was “substantial” or “high.” Said benchmark and its implementation provided an effective and manageable accommodation to enable immunocompromised students to attend in-person classes with their non-disabled peers. In such circumstance, Plaintiffs have demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of their ADA and Section 504 claims based upon the failure of the District to provide a reasonable accommodation for immunocompromised students within the District….

The Court finds that Child Doe 1 is likely to suffer irreparable harm if such access to the District is denied on account of the District’s optional mask policy. The ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act mandate that disabled plaintiffs must have equal access to opportunities using the least restrictive means possible. Denying immunocompromised Plaintiffs the opportunity to access educational opportunities in the District will cause the immunocompromised Plaintiffs to suffer irreparable harm.

Additionally, Plaintiffs’ Complaint and Brief in Support of the Temporary Restraining Order suggest that masking is part of the layered approach used to help slow the rate of transmission of COVID-19. The rate of transmission in the community has increased in recent weeks due to the spread of the Omicron variant. The optional masking policy increases risks to the health and wellbeing of the Plaintiffs and all students in the District. Further, immunocompromised students at higher risk are less able to safely attend classes in-person with an optional masking environment. In such circumstances, Plaintiffs have demonstrated a likelihood of establishing that they will suffer irreparable harm….

Students have been wearing masks in the District for the majority of the 2020, 2021, and 2022 school years to date. The mask mandate status has been attained and maintained within the District without unreasonable expenditure or difficulty. The Defendants cite no evidence in their Brief of how masks place an undue burden upon the District. As such, the District not will experience significant hardship if the District again requires the wearing of masks in school….

Additionally, and as Plaintiffs suggest in their Brief, wearing masks slows the transmission of COVID-19. As such, requiring masks in the District weighs in favor of the public interest because it will help to slow the spread of COVID-19 ….

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