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North Allegheny school board to meet in person days after court-ordered mask mandate

Students wearing masks on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021.
Brittainy Newman
Students wearing masks on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021.

The North Allegheny school board will meet in-person tonight, just days after a federal judge ordered it to require masking on district property.

While the meeting will be streamed online, public comment will only be allowed in-person.

That marks a departure from recent policy: For nearly eight months, the board had allowed public comment either in person or by phone because of limits on the size of gatherings. Its November and December meetings were virtual-only. The board has previously had to call off a meeting because some in the audience refused to wear masks.

School board president Richard McClure, who voted to toss out the masking requirement in December, declined to comment on the public speaking format.

Since the school year began, masks have been optional at North Allegheny for only one day. The board has twice voted to make them optional, though the changes weren’t put into practice this fall. All Pennsylvania schools operated under a masking mandate imposed by acting Pennsylvania Health Secretary Alison Beam in August. In December, the board voted to make masks optional when the state mandate was lifted, which it was scheduled to do in January. But days after that vote, the state mandate ended ahead of schedule, when the state Supreme Court struck down Beam's order, ruling that she didn’t have the authority to implement the mandate.

District families with immunocompromised students are now suing the district for discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. They argue that it is unsafe for their children to attend school if others aren’t wearing masks, and that the district hasn't taken reasonable steps — like continuing a mask mandate previously in place — to allow them to come to school.

The district has argued that it provided alternatives including cyber school for immunocompromised students. But on Monday, federal judge Marilyn Horan placed a temporary restraining order on the district, requiring it to keep the mask requirement in effect as the lawusit proceeds.

Horan wrote that the court had “little, if any, precedent to guide its decision in this case. Equally unprecedented is the societal reaction to the pandemic thereby pitting community members against each other.”

But while the lawsuit will continue with a hearing and testimony in the next few weeks, Horan wrote that for the time being, cyber-school programs were not a suitable alternative for students, since the programs fail to account for “the impact to the immunocompromised students’ educational needs and potential family needs to assist their homebound children.”

One of the district’s attorney’s, Michael Brungo, said Tuesday that he couldn’t comment on ongoing litigation.

Ken Behrend, the attorney representing the North Allegheny families, said that families were overwhelmed by the win — but mindful that circumstances could change as the case proceeds.

“It’s a lot of tears … and concern that this is temporary,” Behrend said Tuesday.

“There is hope and relief, at least for now, that their children are protected,” he said. “They need protected from their own school board so that their children aren’t being needlessly exposed to infection from COVID.”

McClure and another Republican school board member, Vidya Szymkowiak, ran in November on a platform of keeping students in school. Their slate of candidates was backed by a $10,000 donation from a Bucks County Republican Paul Martino who funded school board races across the state with a $600,000 fund called Back to School PA. Both McClure and Szymkowiak voted in December to make masks optional, saying that parents should have the option to chose what their child will do.

Behrend said that if the mandate is lifted, parents he represents will have to pull their children from school. He said the cyber option the district has offered requires adult supervision, and that it amounts to discrimination because non-immunocompromised students have the ability to attend in-person.

Families from across the region have shown interest in the North Allegheny case, with some even donating to pay for the plaintiff's legal fees. The outcome, though, will be limited to the school district: Behrend said while families in other districts could use the outcome of the case as a precedent, they’ll have to fight their own legal battles.

As for the in-person meeting, Behrend said parents, including the plaintiffs in the case, have asked the school board president to either make the meeting fully virtual or to allow for virtual comments.

“So far there has been no agreement to do either of those,” he said.

The North Allegheny school board work session will begin at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the district’s central administrative offices in McCandless. Masking is not on the agenda, but speakers can address non-agenda topics at the end of the meeting.