PENNSYLVANIA — The Commonwealth Court this week closed the chapter on the last challenge to school district mask mandates, dismissing a lawsuit filed against the Pennsylvania Secretary of Education and five school districts, including the Pennsbury School District in Bucks County.
On Dec. 1, the Commonwealth Court issued a ruling dismissing a statewide attempt by plaintiffs to invalidate the power of locally elected school boards to implement public health measures in local schools during a pandemic. Rudolph Clarke, LLC Partner Peter Amuso, and attorney Samantha Newell represented Pennsbury School District in the matter.
The ruling marks a significant victory statewide for school districts.
“Through the school code, our Legislature has granted local school boards broad power to protect students based on local conditions,” said Amuso. “We were proud to protect those broad powers for Pennsbury and our other school district clients, and for all school districts across the Commonwealth. We continue to be ready to assist our clients facing these complex safety issues.”
Nine parents of school-aged children sued Pennsbury, as well as Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Noe Ortega, and school districts in Allegheny County, Monroe County, the Lehigh Valley, and Pittsburgh. They argued that local school districts have no authority to require students and visitors to wear masks during a pandemic and that Ortega was wrong to advise them as such.
In a November 2021 email sent to school districts throughout Pennsylvania, Ortega wrote, in part, “school entities still possess the authority and are encouraged to require masks in their facilities as recommended by [the] CDC,” as noted in the 19-page ruling.
Plaintiffs contended that Ortega “erred by advising the School District Respondents that they could enact masking policies” and that school districts “lack the authority to implement mask mandates,” according to the ruling.
In her conclusion, Commonwealth Court Judge Christine Fizzano Cannon wrote that Ortega’s advice “was not an order, directive, requirement or mandate” and said the petition for review was “moot” since schools no longer require masks.
In addition to representing Pennsbury, Amuso coordinated the efforts of the attorneys representing the Secretary of Education, as well as the other school districts, along with attorneys from the Pennsylvania School Boards Associations, who filed a brief supporting the districts’ position.
On Oct. 11, Amuso argued in front of the Commonwealth Court that school districts do have the authority under Section 510 of the Public School Code to require masks.
Ultimately, the Commonwealth Court dismissed the case outright. While the Court did not specifically address Section 510 of the School Code, its outright dismissal of the case ends the plaintiffs’ challenge to the authority of local school districts to protect students.