EAST ROCKHILL — A Perkasie resident says the Pennridge School Board email sent to district families and posted on the district's Facebook page regarding the board's disagreement with the state requiring face masks in schools was a violation of the state's Sunshine Act, also known as the Open Meetings Law.
The Sunshine Act "requires agencies to deliberate and take official action on agency business in an open and public meeting. It requires that meetings have prior notice, and that the public can attend, participate, and comment before an agency takes that official action," according to information on the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records website.
John Seager said he filed a private criminal complaint about the alleged Sunshine Act violation Sept. 8 in District Court in New Britain and was told it was being forwarded to the Bucks County District Attorney's office for review.
"Since this is a litigation matter, the District cannot comment other than to say that it disagrees with the allegations of the complaint and believes that the District has complied with all relevant laws. It intends to vigorously defend the matter if it is tried," school board President Bill Krause said in answer to an emailed request for comment.
The state mask mandate was announced Aug. 31 and went into effect Sept. 7. The Pennridge board, which had previously approved masks being optional, replied with the Sept. 2 email, signed by Krause and board Vice President Joan Cullen.
"The Governor's Order strips local school boards of any latitude to consider amendments to their Health and Safety Plans to adapt the Governor's Order to particular conditions in the District," the email said.
"It is abundantly clear that the Governor's Order is against the wishes of the majority of the Pennridge community. However, because the Governor's Order would directly penalize PSD and its employees, PSD is being forced to implement the Governor's Order as of September 7th until there is a legal challenge to the Governor's Order sustained by a court," it said. "Please know that, because the Board believes the Governor has exceeded the authority granted him by the laws on which he relies, the Board will be actively considering opportunities to participate in any litigation filed by school districts seeking to challenge the Governor's unilateral imposition of these requirements without any regard for local control of schools."
The email also pointed out that the mask mandate allows exceptions for medical and mental health conditions and provided a form in which parents could claim an exemption so their child would not be required to wear a mask in school.
"You are not required to provide a note from a physician or a psychologist along with this exemption request," the message said.
The board, which had last met on Aug. 23, did not have any public meetings between the state announcement and the email.
"The board issued pretty clear and specific policy regarding parental exemptions and they didn't have a meeting. There was no public process there and from what I can see, that's a violation of the Sunshine Act," Seager said.
Seager said he has also forwarded to the Pennsylvania Department of Education information that in not requiring a doctor's note for the exemption form, the board contradicted its own written policy and state guidelines.
On Sept. 3, the Department of Education amended its FAQs on the mask mandate, adding a line to the answer on the question of whether individuals are required to show proof of an exception request, Seager said.
The line says, "School entities should follow their established processes for determining student eligibility under those laws, including any medical documentation that they would normally require."
"What they're supposed to do is do the same thing they do when they have some other medical issue," Seager said, "and a good example is immunization and that's covered in the Pennridge policies. They don't allow parents to send in their notes to exempt from medical requirements. They require a physician's note, and they didn't do that here."
The district policy says, "A student shall be exempt from immunization requirements whose parent/guardian objects in writing to such immunization on religious or moral grounds or whose physician certifies, in writing, that the student's physical condition contraindicates immunization."
The board's actions jeopardize the health of students and could lead to local taxpayers having to pay more if state funding is lost, Seager said.
"Obviously, I don't speak for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, but if they're not following the state rules, you would think that at some point the Department of Education is going to do something more than just send them a stern letter," he said.
The students have to come first, he said, and uses a driving illustration as an example of what has happened in the mask debate.
"Just to put it in plain terms, if you're driving down the road and you see a speed limit that says 55, it doesn't matter how many people are sitting in the back seat telling you to go 80. You can't do it, or if you do, you're gonna get pulled over, and you may endanger people," he said.
"The speed limit here is the speed limit and you've got a bunch of people sitting in the back seat here saying, no, just go as fast as you like, I got a note here from my parents that it's OK, or I got this piece of paper they're waving around that they came up with," Seager said. "It doesn't work that way. We all have to follow the law, the rules, and if we don't like them, there are ways to change them, but the law is the law."