Judge rules in favor of immunocompromised students, but masking still optional in Virginia

A federal judge has ruled in favor of the families of 12 immunocompromised students, who filed a lawsuit claiming that Virginia’s new mask-optional law violates their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In his ruling, Judge Norman Moon makes clear that SB739 is law in Virginia, but the law is precluding the students’ rights to seek masking as an accommodation under the ADA, even if it’s the most reasonable option.

“This is not a class action, and the twelve plaintiffs in this case have no legal right to ask the Court to deviate from that state law in any schools in Virginia (much less school districts) their children do not attend, or indeed even those areas of their schools in which Plaintiffs’ children do not frequent,” he wrote.

What does the ruling mean? WTOP’s Neal Augenstein explains in this tweet.

Attorney Christopher Seaman, who was named as one of the plaintiffs in the suit, said on a Twitter post that the ruling states that the state is temporarily blocked from enforcing its law in the schools where the children attend.

The plaintiffs were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, the Disability Law Center of Virginia, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee and two private law firms.

Moon found that the plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that the executive order and new state law “are preempted by federal law, to the extent that they prevent or limit Plaintiffs’ schools or school districts from considering Plaintiffs’ individualized requests that some amount of masking is necessary as a ‘reasonable modification’ to that otherwise applicable Virginia law.”

He wrote that the public interest is served by permitting their school districts to consider their individualized requests.

Moon’s ruling prohibiting enforcement of the mask-optional law came in a preliminary injunction, before trial, which is expected to move forward. Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares had also asked the judge to dismiss the suit, which was filed by the ACLU on behalf of the students.

In a statement Wednesday, Miyares said that Moon’s ruling affirms Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order, and SB739 is “the law of Virginia and parents have the right to make choices for their children.”

The students in the lawsuit have conditions including cancer, cystic fibrosis, moderate-to-severe asthma, Down syndrome, lung conditions and weakened immune systems. Fairfax County, the state’s largest school system, had asked to be heard in support of the lawsuit.

The schools directly impacted by the judge’s decision are: Brownsville Elementary School in Albemarle County; Stanton River Middle in Bedford County; Grassfield Elementary and Southeastern Elementary in Chesapeake; Enon Elementary in Chesterfield County; Cumberland Elementary in Cumberland County; Stenwood Elementary in Fairfax County; Quioccasin Middle in Henrico County; Trailside Middle and Loudoun County High in Loudoun County; Jennie Dean Elementary in Manassas City; and Tabb Middle in York County.

Youngkin faced pushback from school systems over his executive order that gives families the ability to opt out of school-issued mask mandates, which he issued shortly after being sworn into office in January.

A month later, he signed SB739 into law, leaving it up to parents to decide whether their child wears a mask to school.

Eden Heilman, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia, said although the ruling is limited to the 12 plaintiffs, it could serve as a “blueprint” for other students with disabilities across Virginia who could point to it and ask their school district for accommodations.

She added that she couldn’t rule out the possibility of a class-action lawsuit in the future.

WTOP’s Neal Augenstein and Abigail Constantino and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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