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Parents sue state officials, UPMC over mask exemptions. But school districts make the decisions

Francisco Seco

On today’s episode of The Confluence: Health reporter Sarah Boden explains why some families are suing Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration and UPMC over difficulties in obtaining mask exemptions for children in public schools; more than 4,400 truancy cases were filed in Allegheny County courts in 2020 and the first half of this year, and a PublicSource investigation looks into how these cases impact students; and Prevention Point Pittsburgh’s Alice Bell explains how the state could reduce drug overdoses and infections by legalizing the distribution of clean syringes and other items deemed “drug paraphernalia.”

Parents are suing over the difficulty of obtaining mask exemptions for school kids
(0:00 - 7:04)

The parents of more than a dozen children in Western Pennsylvania claim a lack of exemptions to COVID-19 mask mandates in schools violate their children’s constitutional rights.

According to a lawsuit filed last week against members of the Wolf administration and UPMC, these students have medical conditions that prevent them from wearing masks.

“It’s up to the school districts to evaluate these exemption requests and then find out some sort of solution,” explains WESA health and science reporter Sarah Boden.

Some districts required parents to seek a 504 plan, or ask that the school create an individualized education plan, or IEP, for their student, which is often created to support students with disabilities.

“According to the complaint, it seems that some districts want notes from medical doctors,” says Boden. This is, in part, why the suit was also brought against UPMC. “The claim there is that UPMC refuses to provide any documentation for any exemptions for masks, and because UPMC is the largest medical provider in many parts of Pennsylvania, they say that this supposed policy that allows for exemptions in actuality just doesn’t exist.”

UPMC did not respond to a request for comment, so it’s unclear if an internal policy against issuing mask exemptions exists.

Boden says while schools can’t allow wholesale exemptions to mask wearing for students, parents can negotiate with schools to find other solutions. For example, a student might be allowed more mask breaks or to wear a face shield.

“In general I think school districts are trying to balance the health and safety of one kid against the health and safety of the entire student body, and that can be a complicated balance to strike,” says Boden.

Despite pandemic circumstances, thousands of local students were still sent to truancy court
(7:07 - 14:57)

More than 4,400 truancy cases were filed in court in Allegheny County against students and their parents or guardians in 2020 and the first half of this year, according to information obtained by Public Source.

Truancy was still an issue even though the pandemic caused schools, parents and students to adapt to changes in the learning process.

According to the state, a student becomes legally truant at three unexcused absences in a single school year. After six unexcused absences, a student can be considered “habitually truant” and school districts are legally obligated to respond. This usually starts with a parent-staff conference to get to the root of students’ absence.

If a student continues to be absent after that conference, schools can take further steps, including referring the student to truancy court.

“So the school districts are able to decide at what point they will file, or if they will file a court citation, or referral to the courts,” explains TyLisa Johnson, who covers education for PublicSource. “They have options, so you don’t absolutely have to, and some schools don’t always reach for that option.”

Johnson says districts have been dealing with pandemic-related absence in different ways. For example, Pittsburgh Public Schools told Johnson that as long as students were in communication with the district, especially when the pandemic began and technology troubles arose, the district was fairly relaxed about counting absences against students.

North Allegheny School District handled absences by creating new ways to code absences, for example, noting if students were quarantining due to travel.

Despite these changes, 952 PPS students were still referred to truancy court in the 2020 to 2021 school year.

“I spoke with advocates and also researchers, they all agree and the research shows that students of color are more likely to be considered truant than their peers, especially their white peers,” says Johnson. “It's the same for low-income students and students experiencing disabilities.”

Johnson says researchers and advocates all pointed back to the absenteeism policies that may not account for specific circumstances.

She also found parents were burdened by the process of going through truancy court, even though outcomes differed widely.

“Some parents walk away with a dismissed case. Others end up paying hundreds in fines, and having a lengthy, drawn out court process.”

Johnson says many are waiting if schools use this opportunity to adjust their policies to be more accommodating to more students.

Syringe distribution to people with substance use disorders could be legalized 
(14:58 - 22:30)

A bipartisan group of lawmakerswill bring forward legislation that would legalize the distribution of medical syringes to people with substance use disorders.

These syringes and some other items are considered “drug paraphernalia” and those distributing it in the commonwealth could be arrested.

“The law that effectively criminalizes these items in Pennsylvania is an archaic, drug-war-era law from 1972,” says Alice Bell, the overdose prevention project director with Prevention Point Pittsburgh.

Some regions, however, have local ordinances allowing distribution of clean materials, including in Allegheny County and Philadelphia. Prevention Point Pittsburgh does just that within the city, while also offering shelter and medical care.

“If people who inject drugs always had a sterile syringe for every time they injected, we would be able to virtually eliminate injection-related infections,” says Bell. She says decades of research has shown this to be true, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention promotes syringe service programs as well.

Bell says she’s optimistic the state House and Senate will pass a bill to make “syringe services programs,” SSP’s, legal because, she says, lawmakers are seeing that more people are distributing safe drug use supplies without any legal authorization. She says the need is that great.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in Monday to Thursday at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

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