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New Jersey parents sue schools to get children back into the classrooms

New Jersey parents sue schools to get children back into the
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A group of parents in New Jersey are fed up with virtual schooling for their children and have taken their fight to the courts.

In two federal class-action lawsuits, the parents are demanding the schools bring their children back into classrooms. They also warn three other school districts could be sued by the end of the week.

More than a dozen families in the township of Montclair are involved in the litigation to get kids back in school after a year of virtual learning because of the coronavirus pandemic. The parents accuse Montclair Public Schools, the Board of Education and the Montclair superintendent of depriving their children of the right to education and shuttering classrooms without scientific evidence that in-person learning is a COVID-19 risk.

“With their arbitrary rules that fly in the face of the recommendations of experts […], the children of the district have been deprived of their right to an education,” the parents say in the lawsuit. “Sadly, there has been no one to speak for our children over the last 12 months as they silently suffered with remote learning.”

Steven Baffico, a parent leading seven other families in the lawsuit, said he went to court after school officials kept changing reopening deadlines and the reasons for not reopening.

“Like many, we have grown increasingly frustrated with multiple failed reopening dates,” he said. “Everybody just snapped. Everyone was really at their wits’ end because of the ongoing delays.”

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Mr. Baffico said they also are considering suing the teachers union, Montclair Education Association.

Their 33-page complaint detailed the struggles of 14 elementary-age children after attending virtual instruction for more than 325 days.

One second grader has had to attend therapy after experiencing anxiety, depression and sleeping problems. A few other children also experienced trichotillomania, or hair pulling, because of heightened anxiety.

Aside from the educational and social deprivation, the lawsuit said some of the children are suffering from headaches and eye fatigue.

“As this is a current litigation matter, the district cannot comment at this time,” said Jonathan Ponds, superintendent of Montclair Public Schools.

In another lawsuit also filed in the U.S. District Court of New Jersey against the South Orange-Maplewood School District, 16 school-age children ranging from elementary to high school are fighting to get back into the classroom after the school district allowed hybrid learning only for pre-K through second grade, sixth grade and ninth-grade students.

Hybrid learning allows students to alternate between virtual and in-person instruction.

Third, fifth, seventh, eighth and 10th-12th graders in the district have not had in-person learning since March 13, 2020.

“With the school year still operating remotely almost a year after the District schools were closed, time is of the essence,” reads the 37-page lawsuit. “The court should not hesitate to secure plaintiffs’ fundamental rights in securing a basic minimum education for their children are preserved and protected.”

Some of the students are having outbursts, calling themselves “stupid,” and having to see pediatric optometrists because of eye issues from virtual learning, according to the complaint.

Anide Eustache, communications director at South Orange-Maplewood School District, said she couldn’t comment on the case. However, she said the school district tried to bring students back in November but there was a delay because facilities were being upgraded.

After hybrid learning was expected to start for some grades in January, there were disagreements with the district’s teachers union, South Orange and Maplewood Education Association, which left virtual learning in place.

“We have always believed that our students need to be back in schools,” Ms. Eustache said, adding the district has been engaged in a measured reopening “consistent with what we’ve determined is safe for our community and staff.”

Both school districts are engaged in separate litigation with their respective teachers unions in an attempt to get them back to work, according to Montclair Local.

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