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New York City families suing city to reopen public schools

A March 2021 rally to reopen schools at Tweed Courthouse in Downtown Manhattan. (Photo courtesy of Natalya Murakhver.)

A group of New York City families suing the City to fully reopen public schools and offer live instruction five days a week are trying to ramp up pressure on the Department of Education to respond to their lawsuit. 

Last month, dozens of parents filed a lawsuit against the Department of Education arguing the agency was denying children their constitutional right to a “sound and basic education” by continuing remote learning or “zoom in a room” instruction inside reopened school buildings. That same group of parents, led my Upper West Side mom Natalya Murakhver linked to the group #KeepNYCSchoolsOpen, filed a preliminary injunction in Manhattan Supreme Court earlier this week with the hopes of facing the City in court in early June, according to the attorney that filed the lawsuit James Mermigis. 

While most New York City public school families have chosen to keep their children home and enrolled in remote learning throughout the pandemic, a small but loud group of parents has repeatedly protested DOE COVID-19 protocols causing frequent school closures and called on the city to reopen public schools completely to combat learning loss and depression caused by keeping children cooped up at home. Over 300 parents raised nearly $30,000 on the popular crowdfunding site GoFundMe to cover the fees of filing the preliminary injunction. 

Petitioners argue the department’s failure to offer pre-pandemic levels of live instruction is causing  “irreparable harm” to students’ emotional well-being which has suffered during a remote school year plagued with multiple interruptions.

All of the parents involved in the lawsuit say their children have lost all motivation to learn without live in-person instruction from their teachers and are now suffering from anxiety or depression, according to the injunction. One parent of a sophomore at the Beacon School in Hell’s Kitchen said her daughter– a once straight-A student– has become so depressed she tried to take her life twice this past school year, according to the lawsuit. 

New York City public schools were slow to reopen after Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered a second system-wide shutdown last fall during a citywide spike in COVID-19 cases. Children in 3-k, Pre-k and elementary schools were the first to return to classrooms last year with officials reopening middle schools in February and eventually partially reopening 488 high schools the following month.

For months, officials promised the bulk of blended learning students would return to live instruction during their in-person days this spring and many have thanks in part to the majority of families choosing to keep their children home. Out of the roughly 1.1 million public school students, 65% are taking their classes fully remotely this year, according to the most recent DOE data. But many were disappointed to return to physical classrooms just to take their courses via zoom once again due to a teacher shortage caused by blended learning and 21,000 teachers, or 28% of all city public school teachers, working remotely after receiving medical accommodations. 

The injunction comes about six weeks before the end of the school year and while many families wait for de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Meisha Ross Porter to release details on what school will look like this fall. But giving children even just one extra day with their friends and a teacher in a classroom is worth all the effort, said Murakhver. “We don’t believe that even a day in school in a kid’s life is wasted… when they are home they are out of their routine, they’re isolated, they’re depressed, they are eating more junk food. There are so many reasons why saving even a single day this year would be worth it,” the mother of two told amNewYork Metro. She added that the lawsuit is also a means to apply pressure on the city to publicly release a plan for the 2021-22 school year. 

“We really need to see a plan for next year, we have no confidence that the mayor and the UFT are going to do right by parents. We feel like they are stalling and there is indecision and a lot of inner bickering and we want to know for sure that every public school child in New York City from Pre-K to 12th grade will be in a classroom with a teacher present five days a week,” said Murakhver.

Earlier this year, de Blasio said during an interview on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show” that he planned to do away with blended learning next school year and instead allow all students to return to live five-day a week instruction and offer a remote option for families still uncomfortable sending their children back into school buildings.

“I think there are only two realistic pieces here, a full five-day-a-week calendar and then a purely remote option for families that just won’t be ready at that point,” de Blasio said. “ But I  do not foresee blended being a part of the equation anymore.”Since then, the mayor has kept quiet on how classes will look this fall with Chancellor Porter hinted the City might backtrack on their offer to give families a fully remote option, Chalkbeat reported. In another clear sign the City is still formulating how next school year will look, the DOE announced Friday Chancellor Porter will take part in five public forums with school communities to discuss reopening this fall. 

“These family forums are critical to inform our plans for September and ensure our school communities are supported as we prepare for a strong reopening this fall,” said Porter in a statement. “Now more than ever, we need to engage with and empower our families so that every voice is heard. I look forward to having these important discussions over the next few weeks and encourage all New York City families to participate.” 

Each borough will host one of the five forums the first of which will be hosted on Staten Island at 6:30 p.m.  Monday, May 17. Families interested in listening or asking a question during the Q-and-A section can register on the DOE website.  

In response to the lawsuit, DOE spokesperson Danielle Filson said “we have more students in classrooms than any other city in America, and all of our schools are open for in-person learning, the majority offering in-person learning five days a week. New York City set the reopening gold standard for districts across the country, and we will review this suit.” 

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