Coalition targets district, board, superintendent, state
By Karen Carr Keefe
A group of Grand Island parents is taking a stand against the state’s reopening guidance that has kept students from attending school more than two days a week.
The group has formed a nonprofit organization called the Coalition of Grand Island Parents to Put Students First. They’ve teamed up with attorney Corey Hogan and several other attorneys at the law firm HoganWillig to file a lawsuit in order to argue for the immediate, safe reopening of their school buildings to full-time, in-person instruction. Named as defendants in the lawsuit are the governor, the state and county departments of health, the county executive, Grand Island Central School District, the district’s superintendent, the school board and the teachers union.
“We named who we thought would be the people that, if we got them all in a room together, we’d have all the people that have any control over in-person instruction in the public schools,” Hogan said.
The lawsuit argues the school’s continued decision to singularly offer a “hybrid” learning model for those students and families who wish to attend in-person is harmful to students, contributes to stress and severe mental health issues, and poses a significant threat to a child’s normal growth and development, according to the law firm.
The harm, parents say, is compounding every single day that students are prohibited from returning to their normal school schedule.
“Forcing students to learn remotely has proven to be disastrous. So many of our kids are struggling, not only with their grades and keeping up academically, but they are missing out on socialization and the enrichment opportunities that a school environment provides,” said a parent who’s a coalition member.
Hogan said that, although the firm just brought the lawsuit this week, the prep work has been underway for the past two to four months.
”We’ve been hearing from physicians, the neuropsychologists, the psychiatrists, as well as one group of parents after another about the damage that’s being done to these kids not able to resume full-time, in-school instruction,” he said.
The lawsuit challenges executive orders that were issued back when the pandemic began in early 2020, stating that very little to no evidence has emerged since that time that schools are high-transmission vectors within a community, the suit alleges.
The lawsuit cited that, according to a recent CDC study, with proper mask-wearing among students, schools have very low levels of disease transmission compared with their surrounding community.
“I think the damage that has and is being done amongst our youth far outweighs any disease risk mitigation for them. These kids want to be in school, and now with vaccination widely available to the teachers and staff in these buildings, it’s long past time for schools to reopen fully,” Hogan said.
Grand Island School Superintendent Brian Graham recently said in a statement to the Dispatch: “The district has been committed to returning to full, in-person instruction as soon as we can responsibly, safely and legally do so.”
He also said, “Failure of the district to meet its legal obligations and comply with mandatory guidance could result in serious enforcement actions, liability and other adverse consequences.”
Graham said a return to full, in-person instruction would be possible when future modifications to mandatory guidance allow the district to do so.
Hogan said as his firm has gathered the facts, and it’s been obvious to them that all the private schools have been open at least since September on a fully in-person basis and it hasn’t caused the students any apparent viral transmission problems or adverse legal consequences for fully opening up for five-day, in-person instruction.
The law firm has filed on behalf of Grand Island Central School District students and families first, but plans to bring additional suits against other large districts in the area that are similarly offering only remote or hybrid learning models, including the Clarence Central School District, Williamsville Central School District, and others.
“We were hoping that as time went on, as the vaccine distribution continued – teachers and staff became eligible Jan. 8 of this year – there would be continued conversation between the school districts and the union and the teachers, and the county and the state, and the CDC – whoever has to talk so that they get these kids back in school. It had not materialized.”
“We thought when the CDC knocked it down from 6 feet to 3 feet (the required social distancing) that that would hopefully be the straw that broke the camel’s back and everybody would say, ‘OK let’s now get these kids back in the classroom, where the parents and every expert we’ve talked to agrees they need to be. It didn’t appear to occur, so the Grand Island parents that we represent – probably in the range of 300 to 400 parents, have asked us to go ahead and bring the action because they can’t wait any longer. They’re very concerned that if something isn’t done, this will drag on into the summer … and maybe, potentially drag on into the fall of 2021, which would be a total disaster … in terms of not only learning, but the emotional damage that’s being done.”
Coalition member Julie DeAngelo of Grand Island on Feb. 22 started a GoFundMe page, 5Days4GI, that raised $25,000 toward the effort to reopen the schools. They raised the money within a week.
“I think it speaks volumes to say there’s a lot of people that support the goal of getting the kids back to school five days,” she said.
On March 5, a group of Williamsville parents established 5Days4Williamsville, a similar fundraising effort.
“We want what’s best for our kids and we see them all struggling with not having the socialization that they need,” DeAngelo said. She added that parents in the coalition say it’s just been too long that the district hasn’t had a plan in place for bringing the students fully back to in-person learning.
DeAngelo said it’s a common misconception that the coalition is somehow against teachers.
“That is completely not true,” she said. “We want what is best for all parties involved. We recognize that there are great teachers in our community – that’s why we want our kids to go back to school. We also recognize that the way the situation is set up right now is not easy for teachers. That’s why we’re trying to push for a better situation for everyone.”