State Threatens Tamaqua School Board Members Defying Mask Mandate
Pennsylvania’s Education Secretary recently sent a threatening letter to board members at Tamaqua Area School District over their decision to defy the state’s indoor mask mandate on schools.
The state handed down the order through its Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam, by claiming to use some power it thinks it has through the Disease Prevention and Control Act, on Aug. 31. The order went into effect on Sept. 7, a full week after it was announced as a measure to protect the safety of school students.
But on Sept. 2, Tamaqua Area school board members met and voted in favor of defying that mandate. To date, to the best of our knowledge, it’s the only school in Pennsylvania to make that choice.
While other districts voted to adhere to the mandate, some voted in favor of allowing a simple parental note to get their kids out of wearing a mask in school. Others however, have taken strict action against students who don’t comply with the mandate, including removing children from class and sending them home.
Tamaqua Area School Board Members Scolded by PA Education Secretary
In the letter, dated Sept. 8, Ortega spells out a couple threats but they’re just that at this point, threats. But it’s also filled with some deceptive claims on the efficacy of face masks in schools.
“Recent studies have clearly shown that mask-wearing in schools has contributed to lower levels of COVID-19 transmission among students and staff and allowed for continued in-person school attendance,” he writes.
However, the only reason why masks in schools have resulted in more in-person attendance is because of quarantine guidance issued by Ortega’s own Education Dept., which places a lot of importance on mask wearing. For instance, if a child or school staff member contracts COVID, their close contacts don’t have to quarantine – stay home from school – if they were wearing a mask.
That puts a lot of value on mask wearing even if there isn’t conclusive evidence that wearing them is any more effective than not, especially among children.
As for the threats against Tamaqua school board members, Ortega says they could face charges and litigation.
“Failure to implement and follow the control measures under the Order subjects a person, which includes you as a member of the governing board, to the penalty provisions of the Disease Prevention and Control Law of 1955,” Ortega writes. “A violation occurs each day there is a violation and may be charged for each student or staff member attending the school.”
That’s not the end of the threats against Tamaqua school board members, however. Ortega says they “may” also face personal liability and lawsuits. He writes:
“Failing to implement or follow the control measures may also expose you to personal liability under 42 Pa.C.S. §8550 (relating to willful misconduct), as well as other remedies and actions as provided by law. Please be aware that this letter serves as official notice to you that failure to comply with the mask order is a violation of law and imparts knowledge of both the applicable law and your organization’s noncompliance. A knowing violation may be used by a plaintiff to establish personal liability in a negligence action per 42 Pa.C.S. § 8550.”
Ortega says school board members could also get sued by parents of students who are known to contract COVID at a Tamaqua school even though it would be nearly impossible to prove that infection happened at the school and because children weren’t wearing masks.
“You could face suit and potential liability with no indemnification or protection,” Ortega writes. “In this regard, the administration is aware that some districts’ liability insurers have explored cancelling coverage as a result of those districts’ possible illegal conduct and potential purposeful violations of law. Further, school districts’ violations of law may negatively affect workers’ compensation claims coverage and premium calculations.”
The letter, as you can see, is filled with a lot of mays, coulds, and maybes.
Ortega even says Tamaqua schools could face a federal civil rights investigation because of the board’s decision to defy the order.
The Education Secretary also says, without evidence, that his department has been asked how school district superintendents, principals, and teachers should act if they’ve been directed to “violate the law” and they could be protected from retaliation through Pennsylvania whistleblower laws.
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