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Pierce County mother files lawsuit against health department for requiring remote learning this fall

The lawsuit states health officials are robbing her children of their right to a basic education. Officials say COVID-19 cases need to decrease before reopening.

TACOMA, Wash. — A Pierce County woman has filed a lawsuit against the county and local health officials for requiring all schools to begin the school year with remote learning.

Wendy Cochran filed the lawsuit this week against Pierce County, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department (TPCHD), and Director of Health Dr. Anthony Chen. The suit alleged those parties are robbing Cochran's three children of their constitutional right to an in-person education by requiring all public and private schools to start with remote learning in the fall.

“Over the span of several months of schools across the nation engaging in remote learning, the best evidence indicates that COVID-19 poses relatively low risks to school-aged children,” the lawsuit, filed in Pierce County Superior Court, said. “Conversely, distance learning has been universally condemned as a substantially inadequate, inequitable, and harmful form of education. Remote learning leads to severe learning loss and makes absorbing information more difficult for students with disabilities, developmental delays, or other cognitive disabilities.”

Dr. Chen issued a letter on Aug. 12 to all Pierce County school superintendents announcing his decision to require remote learning in the fall until “COVID-19 disease activity in Pierce County decreases to a level safe to reopen schools for in-person learning.”

Dr. Chen's letter continued, “We agree on the importance of education, the value of in-person education for students, and the multiple roles schools play in supporting families and the community. However, with the high rate of community transmission we have experienced since mid-June, I am concerned about the safety of students, teachers, and staff and the exacerbation of community transmission.”

Cochran's lawsuit also alleged Dr. Chen made the decision for remote learning without consulting the TPCHD Board of Health.

As of August 26, Pierce County has 6,515 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 145 deaths associated with COVID-19, according to the county’s website. The county has reported 762 cases in the last 14 days, and the county’s 14-day case rate per 100,000 people is 84.5.

According to a report released by the Washington State Department of Health (DOH), when the community transmission of disease drops below a total 14-day case rate of 75 per 100,000 people and the test positivity rate is below 5%, schools could consider in-person learning for elementary students.

However, while state and local health officials are wanting to see a lower COVID-19 transmission rate before sending students back, Cochran's lawsuit alleged school-aged children are less likely to contract the virus. 

The latest data from the DOH said people ages 0 to 19 account for 13% of COVID-19 cases in Washington state.

Cochran is seeking an injunction of Dr. Chen's order on remote learning in the fall. The TPCHD said its attorney and staff are reviewing the lawsuit and drafting a response.