District Court rules in favor of Virginia parents of kids with disabilities

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A federal judge ruled yesterday that a group of Virginia parents have the right to ask the schools their children attend for reasonable accommodation in terms of minimizing their immunocompromised children’s exposure to COVID-19.

The plaintiffs in the case, Seaman v. Commonwealth of Virginia, are the parents of 12 children whose health conditions put them at significant risk should they contract COVID. The parents asked the court to prevent Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Attorney General Jason Miyares from enforcing Executive Order 2 or Senate Bill 739, which made masks optional in schools, on the basis that they violate the student’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation act, which are both federal laws.

The Supremacy Clause in the U.S. Constitution states that federal laws generally supersede state law when they contradict. The court ruled that Executive Order 2 and Bill 739 impose on the plaintiff’s right to seek accommodation under the ADA and Rehabilitation Act.

The court also established that only the schools the children of the plaintiffs attend now, or would attend in the future, will be subject to their decision. One of the students attends Enon Elementary in Chesterfield and one attends Quioccasin Elementary in Henrico.

The plaintiffs filed their original complaint on Feb. 1, 2022, arguing that actual or threatened injury is “certainly impending” and that mask mandates being lifted forced their children to “forego critical educational opportunities, including in-person learning with their peers, and that the decision would continue to affect their “educational interests and opportunities.”

Three weeks after the parents filed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed how they measure rates of COVID transmission, declaring the majority of the country was now at “low” or “medium” risk and easing mask mandates in those areas.

The most recent data from the Virginia Department of Health at the time of the decision showed, out of the plaintiffs’ ten home districts, seven still had a “high” or “substantial” level of transmission. Three had a “medium” level and none had a “low” level.

Mask mandates are not the only COVID-19 mitigation measure that is being abandoned in schools. One of the plaintiff’s child’s schools refused a request for unmasked students to stay six feet away and also ended contact-tracing procedures.

In the case, the defendants argued that the plaintiffs did not “exhaust their administrative remedies” before filing the complaint, which is required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA). The defendants said the plaintiffs had other options available under the IDEA and characterized their complaint as “the deprivation of public education.”

The Supreme Court’s decision in Fry v. Napoleon County Schools established that exhausting all remedies under the IDEA is only necessary when the case is about the denial of a “free appropriate public education.”

Free appropriate public education (FAPE) requires schools to tailor education to meet the needs of students with physical or intellectual disabilities. The court ruled that the plaintiffs’ complaint did not concern the denial of FAPE, and thus, did not require them to exhaust all other options under the IDEA.

For a preliminary injunction, the plaintiffs had to establish that they’re “likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief.”

Through evidence and expert affidavits, the plaintiffs made a case that:

  • Exposure to COVID puts them at a high risk of severe illness or death
  • Return to in-person instruction in the current circumstances would be unsafe
  • Alternatives to in-person attendance are either unavailable or unequal

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