Judge Wendy Beetlestone ruled that the plaintiffs, an anonymous group of parents and students from the Montgomery County district, were able to effectively argue that ending the mandate put immunocompromised students at risk and therefore violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The lawsuit said ending the mandate would have "the effect of excluding these children from their public institution, or otherwise denying them the opportunity to participate in the services of the school district."
The children cited in the lawsuit suffer from asthma, chronic bronchitis and one has a vocal chord issue.
"Because of their disabilities they are effectively forced to choose between accessing buildings where they get in-person education and social and developmental services, or attending school virtually where they're barred from the building," said lawyer Carmen De Gisi, who represents the plaintiffs.
He argued that virtual education is not as robust and effective as in-person education.
"They are at an increased risk of very severe health complications including hospitalizations, number of illnesses symptoms and death," he said.
The school board voted 5-4 late last year to end the mandate in January.
However, one day after masks became optional, Beetlestone issued a temporary restraining order that reimposed the mandate while the case was decided.
The judge's ruling now grants a preliminary injunction in favor of the plaintiffs.
"Plaintiffs have therefore carried their burden and their Motion for a Preliminary Injunction will be granted," Beetlestone wrote. "Specifically, the District must apply the rules and policies that applied from January 3 to January 21, 2022."
In that plan children do not have to wear masks during optional after-school events like sports, however it is strongly encouraged.
Nicole Miley has two high schoolers, both are heavily involved in sports.
She says when the mask requirement was re-instated home basketball games had to be abruptly rescheduled to away games and many sports parents feared about their children's safety while exercising with a mask on.
"At least that will be somewhat of a silver lining that they can take those masks off during competition," said Miley.
She said she was disappointed in the judge's decision.
"We voted for our school board, we trust them," she said. "We trust them, we trust our administrators to make decisions for the best interests of all our kids in the district. It's disappointing the court stepped in and overruled what they felt was in the students' best interest."
Michele Matasich agreed with Miley and felt the district was taking all 5,000 students' needs into account.
"They were making accommodations however they could for those students, and I don't think that should have to impact the entire population of the school," Matasich said.
Students said the back and forth has caused tension. Sean Aiman, a senior, said students were awaiting the decision all day.
"People were talking about it all day. They were checking the status updates on it and new articles," said Aiman. "It should really be a choice. I thought it was pretty clear cut."
Attorneys for the school board did not respond to say if they would appeal.
Superintendent Barbara Russell sent the following statement to Action News:
"The Perkiomen Valley School District will continue to offer a quality educational experience in a safe and healthy manner to all of its students as we navigate the ongoing circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The federal court's decision today directs the district to continue with universal masking during the school day while offering those inside any of our facilities after school during athletics, music ensembles, clubs, committee meetings, Community Education, etc., to follow a strongly recommended guideline for masking.
We will continue to seek the earliest appropriate relief from the current universal mask requirement while upholding guidelines that support the health and safety of all students and staff."
Action News also obtained this letter sent to parents within the district:
Dear PV Families, Students, and Staff,
The Federal Court handed down its decision today instructing the school district to follow phase 1 of its Health and Safety Transition Plan v3 final approved on January 2, 2022 by the Board of School Directors. Phase 1 (Masking - January 3-21) stipulates that masks are required when indoors in any of the District's facilities during the school day. Additionally, this phase states that masks are strongly recommended after the school day while indoors. After the school day refers to during athletics, music ensembles, clubs, committee meetings, Community Education, spectating, etc. Masks continue to be optional when outdoors.
The version v3 final will be posted on the website (COVID page) once again with the section regarding masking rules highlighted for ease of reference. Currently, this version of the Health and Safety Transition Plan is posted in BoardDocs as part of the January 2, 2022 agenda.
I appreciate the dedication on the part of all in our school communities to uphold this most recent court order. Conversations about universal masking in our schools will continue.
Dr. Barbara A. Russell