PERKIOMEN VALLEY, PA — A class of plaintiffs who are suing the Perkiomen Valley School District for rescinding its face mask policy claimed the suburban district was in contempt of court for allegedly violating a federal judge’s order that temporarily reinstated districtwide masking.
A judge, however, determined otherwise.
An attorney representing the class of plaintiffs filed court papers at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on Jan. 28 seeking to have Judge Wendy Beetlestone declare the school district in contempt of court and extending the temporary restraining order that currently goes through Feb. 8 and requires all students and staff to be masked through that date.
The latest court filing said that the district has “repeatedly refused to implement and enforce the universal masking policy” required by the temporary restraining order.
The emergency motion was filed by plaintiffs’ attorney Carmen A. De Gisi of Lafayette Hill.
The judge, however, denied the emergency petition without prejudice on the same day it had been filed, according to the docket sheet in the case in federal court. There was no reasoning offered by the judge for the denial, but simply an order ruling against the plaintiffs.
The Perkiomen Valley School District was sued in federal court on Jan. 21 over the school board’s decision to make masking optional.
The December school board vote to rescind universal masking came after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court last year struck down a statewide mask mandate for schools that had been put in place by Pennsylvania’s former acting health secretary.
After the state Supreme Court decision, individual school boards were once again given the discretion to set their own policies with regard to masking in school buildings.
In the latest Perkiomen Valley filing, the plaintiffs claimed the district had failed to enforce the temporary universal masking policy; failed to inform the plaintiffs of “multiple and continuous breaches” of the court order; and failed to adopt and enforce protocols to meet the requirements of the court’s temporary injunction order.
“Despite the Court’s order to enforce universal masking in Perkiomen Valley School District, Plaintiff has learned that Defendants have excused student noncompliance with masking for those students who have provided written notes from a parent indicating refusal to comply with the Court’s order,” the plaintiffs’ emergency petition reads. “Instead of prohibiting entry to students, staff, and visitors who refuse to properly wear a mask, Defendants instructed teachers and staff to merely document student non-compliance with the Court’s order in a ‘google document.'”
The petition said that the district had also failed to remove those students, staff and visitors who fail to wear masks from the school buildings.
The plaintiffs who are suing the district are unnamed students who have special needs or disabilities that they say put them at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19 if masks are allowed to remain optional in the school district.
The emergency petition states that the plaintiffs’ attorney called the school district’s lawyer about the alleged breaches of the court order and to request compliance with the order.
“To date, counsel for Defendants have not … provided any assurance that the TRO [temporary restraining order] would be enforced going forward,” the petition reads.
In a letter to the judge that was included in the public record, Perkiomen Valley School District Solicitor Brian Subers, of the firm Fox Rothschild, said that the district had complied with the court’s temporary restraining order “in every respect.”
Subers said the district never attempted to implement the school board decision to rescind universal masking and that the policy requiring everyone to be masked for the time being continues to be in effect.
“Plaintiffs’ filing of this emergency petition for contempt is obdurate and vexatious and an egregious affront to the character, decency and good faith of the dedicated and law abiding administrators and staff of the Perkiomen Valley School District, and it must be denied accordingly,” Subers wrote.
The plaintiffs sought an order from the judge finding that the defendants are in civil contempt for violating the court’s previous temporary restraining order.
“As a result of Defendants’ flagrant disregard for the TRO by refusing to enforce universal masking, the Plaintiffs are suffering the harm the TRO sought to enjoin,” the emergency petition states. “Since the breaches of the TRO have been brought to Defendants’ attention and compliance is still absent, Plaintiff has no confidence that Defendants will abide by the Court’s Order pending a hearing.”
The petition also says the plaintiffs also seek the assistance of United States Marshals to enforce the court’s order, although it was not clear from court papers whether that means the plaintiffs actually want federal agents inside school buildings to force the wearing of masks.
Supplemental documentation accompanying the emergency petition says that the plaintiffs were made aware of the alleged violations by the school district through communications with parents of some of the unnamed child plaintiffs.
Meanwhile, on Jan. 26, five days after the initial lawsuit was filed, Perkiomen Valley Superintendent Barbara A. Russell updated the school community with a message stressing that the district would be complying with the federal judge’s ruling temporarily reinstating universal masking and noting that the “decision to return to a universal mask school environment was made by the Court and not by our Board of School Directors, the administration or me.”