A Lakewood family has filed a lawsuit against the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department and health director Anthony Chen over a directive made in August that public and private schools must start the school year with remote learning in light of COVID-19.
The lawsuit, filed Monday in Pierce County Superior Court, claims that TPCHD and Chen “violated the required administrative procedures for a proper health directive” and “ignored the current and pre-eminent scientific and medical information regarding the health of school-aged children in the face of the novel coronavirus.”
Wendy Cochran filed the lawsuit on behalf of her three children, who attend Charles Wright Academy in Tacoma, and “on behalf of all school families in Pierce County who will be deprived of the opportunity to attend in-school” this fall.
TPCHD did not immediately respond for comment Tuesday afternoon.
In the lawsuit, the Cochrans said “their school designed a plan that abided by current COVID-19 safety requirements” for in-person learning.
“Despite these thoughtfully planned out safety measures, Dr. Chen issued a letter on August 12, 2020, mandating that all public and private schools in Pierce County must conduct remote education for the upcoming school year,” the lawsuit states.
Chen issued a recommendation in July that schools in Pierce County return to school in September through remote learning due to high transmission cases of COVID-19, which were around 130 cases per 100,000 people. Gov. Jay Inslee issued guidance on Aug. 5 that clarified when school districts can reopen for in-person learning. Counties with more than 75 cases per 100,000 people within a 14-day period are recommended for distance learning only.
Chen issued another letter on Aug. 12 clarifying that his recommendation was a requirement and included both public and private schools.
The lawsuit said that Chen’s decision “failed to involve the TPCHD board of directors in the decision to issue a blanket restriction.”
“Dr. Chen’s letter also failed to include the board in mandating a blanket one-size-fits-all approach that did not consider children’s special needs, restriction to robust internet, or family situations that would make distance learning impossible and unworkable,” the lawsuit stated.
The lawsuit also states “scientific studies suggest that COVID-19 transmission among children in schools may be low,” and that remote learning can cause harm to children, who can lose access to services that help them.
“Remote learning leads to severe learning loss and makes absorbing information more difficult for students with disabilities, developmental delays, or other cognitive disabilities,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit adds that after Chen’s Aug. 12 directive, some members of the health department’s Board of Health questioned whether it was “equitable” and that it required consultation by the board.
The lawsuit requests Chen’s requirement be “invalidated.”
“The request of a Pierce County judge is to clarify Dr. Chen’s mandate is not legally enforceable,” Darrell Cochran, lawyer and father of the family issuing the lawsuit, told The News Tribune on Tuesday.
CORRECTION: The name of the family filing a lawsuit against the health department was misspelled. The Cochrans filed the lawsuit on Monday.