The Volokh Conspiracy

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Federal Disability Law Doesn't Require School Districts to Mandate Masks

"Plaintiffs' position if accepted, would essentially graft the recommendations of the CDC into the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act. And as a practical matter, elevating CDC recommendations to the level of law would serve to take many decisions relating to health policy and directly impacting citizens out of the hands of their elected representatives and put them into the hands of unknown and unanswerable CDC decisionmakers and unelected and unanswerable federal judges."


[UPDATE: I should note what I missed at first, which is that a footnote in the opinion notes a different result from a different judge in the same district; I've just blogged about that opinion. Thanks to commenter Mark Regan for pointing this out.]

So holds today's opinion by Judge William S. Stickman IV (W.D. Pa.) in Doe 1 v. Upper Saint Clair School Dist.:

Plaintiffs … allege that their children are "medically fragile disabled students" and that permitting families and students to choose whether to mask will subject them to increased risk of catching COVID-19 and increased risk of harm from the virus. They allege that, in light of their children's medical conditions, the School Board's decision to make masking optional violates both Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act … and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 ….

To be clear, Plaintiffs do not allege that the policy adopted by the School Board hinders their own child's ability to wear a mask. Rather, they allege that, by permitting other students and families to choose whether to wear masks, the policy violates the cited statutes. Plaintiffs … [ask, in effect,] that, notwithstanding the vote of the School Board, universal masking would be ordered to remain in place for an indefinite period, provided that transmission of COVID-19 remains "substantial" or "high" in Allegheny County…. Their request for injunctive relief is premised on the position that universal masking is the only reasonable accommodation to which they are entitled under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act….

There is no question that the School District has enacted a number of safety measures designed to curb the spread of COVID-19 [including physical distancing, cleaning and ventilation, contact tracing, diagnostic and screening testing, and efforts to provide vaccinations to school communities]…. Critically, the Plan also provides for the following "[a]ppropriate accommodations for students with disabilities with respect to health and safety policies": "The School District will review additional mitigation options for staff members and students who are at higher risk for severe illness, including necessary accommodations under the ADA, Section 504, or the IDEA." During argument, these provisions were referenced by counsel for Defendants, who explained that accommodations granted to students "who are at higher risk for severe illness" include a variety of measures, including distancing, special seating in classrooms and, if necessary, at-home instruction or virtual classes.

Despite those safety measures and possible accommodations, Plaintiffs take the position that the only reasonable accommodation appropriate in light of child Plaintiffs' conditions is a requirement of universal masking in the School District … so long as transmission of COVID-19 in Allegheny County is at a "substantial" or "high" level.

Moreover, Plaintiffs' request is without limitation on duration. While Plaintiffs' counsel expressed hope that COVID-19 infection numbers fall beneath the "substantial" threshold this year, and suggested that the requested relief is limited to this year, there is no guarantee that will occur. Moreover, the specific relief requested by the TRO and proposed order would require masking indefinitely, so long as the number of cases is "substantial" or higher. (Tr. at 14-15) ("Since the science and the medicine tells us that a virus doesn't go away by a deadline, we have to use a different metric. And the metric we're doing is the one that medical professionals rely upon, and its that if the COVID transmission rate, per the CDC for Allegheny County only, is in the substantial or high basis, then masking should stay in place.")….

With a population of 1.216 million, 607 cases per 7 days would be enough to bring Allegheny County into the "substantial" category. The CDC's definitions were calibrated to the earlier Delta variant of COVID-19, rather than the significantly more transmissible Omicron variant, which currently accounts for nearly all new infections. With COVID-19 becoming endemic and with a much more transmissible variant, one wonders whether the numbers will ever be low enough to fall below the "substantial" category and/or whether each winter, as respiratory infections seasonally increase, the number will again increase to a level requiring masking under Plaintiffs' position.

Plaintiffs seem to acknowledge that this could be an issue, and their counsel conceded that the CDC "may revise those guidelines. And if they revise them based upon the level of Omicron, they may up the number of transmissions so that the barometer they're using makes it more flexible."

While not alone dispositive, the unreasonableness of Plaintiffs' position is highlighted by its unprecedented nature. Although immunocompromised children have always been present in our schools, and communicable diseases have always circulated, prior to COVID-19 there was never an argument for mandatory, indefinite, universal masking in schools-much less the argument that the failure of a school district to mandate universal masking constitutes a violation of federal law. Aside from cases addressing COVID-19, the Court was unable to locate a single case where a court held that a reasonable accommodation for an immunocompromised or otherwise vulnerable person was to require all other students and staff of a school, or constituents of an institution or community, to wear a mask or any other type of personal protective equipment.

The unreasonable nature of Plaintiffs' position is further highlighted by the fact that, while it imposes an unprecedented requirement upon the School District—i.e., mandate universal masking of all students, faculty, and staff or violate the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act—it is not guaranteed to be effective. In other words, Plaintiffs may still become infected with COVID-19. It is common knowledge that wearing a mask is no guarantee against infection. Counsel for Defendants stated that, even with universal masking, the School District still had a number of cases since the onset of Omicron. Moreover, Plaintiffs' request does not specify a particular type of mask—notwithstanding the fact that public health authorities have called into question the effectiveness of, for example, cloth masks against the Omicron variant.

For these reasons, the Court holds that Plaintiffs' request for the indefinite imposition of universal masking will not be found to be a reasonable accommodation when the claims are finally decided on the merits. {See, e.g., L.E. v. Ragsdale (N.D. Ga. Oct. 15, 2021) ("While Plaintiffs may prefer a mask mandate and other stricter policies, Defendants are not required to provide Plaintiffs with their preferred accommodation. So long as Plaintiffs are offered meaningful access to education—and the Court finds that they have been—Defendants have adequately accommodated Plaintiffs and their disabilities.").} …

The Court [also] holds that granting this TRO would risk imposing substantial harm upon the School District and that doing so would run contrary to the public interest. Specifically, the Court believes that granting the relief sought would risk upsetting the system of popular governance of schools that is an important part of our system of layered and answerable government.

The sole accommodation demanded by Plaintiffs would supersede the democratic vote of the School Board on an issue that elicits strong feelings not only from Plaintiffs, but also from other members of the public. Further, the legal theory proffered by Plaintiffs unduly amplifies the authority of CDC recommendations while, at the same time, severely curtailing the practical authority of the people, through their elected school directors, to make decisions on matters of prudential judgment.

Plaintiffs' position if accepted, would essentially graft the recommendations of the CDC into the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act. And as a practical matter, elevating CDC recommendations to the level of law would serve to take many decisions relating to health policy and directly impacting citizens out of the hands of their elected representatives and put them into the hands of unknown and unanswerable CDC decisionmakers and unelected and unanswerable federal judges.

There is no question that COVID-19 has challenged every American institution. This Country will continue to face challenges that have scientific or technical considerations which are informed by experts within or outside of government. Governments at all levels would do well to weigh and consider the advice offered by those experts. However, in a democratic republic, the ultimate answer to the question of "who decides" must be the people through their elected and answerable representatives.

In this case, the Court believes that the entry of a TRO would damage the independence and authority of the School Board—the directly elected body entrusted by State law with setting policy for the School District. It would lead, in practical effect, to the elevation of CDC recommendations beyond their appropriate level of authority and to the exclusion of local, democratic authority over matters of prudential judgment. The Court holds that these considerations weigh in favor of a finding that entry of a TRO would be contrary to the public interest….