On Thursday, Councilman Joseph Borelli (R-South Shore), joined by dozens of Staten Island families outside Tottenville High School, announced plans to file a class action lawsuit against the DOE, claiming that the department is depriving New York City schoolchildren of their state constitutional right to a proper education.
“Today, we are here to announce that we are forming up against the New York City Department of Education for failing to meet the New York State constitutionally-mandated public school system,” Borelli said. ”That’s right. The New York State Constitution guarantees public education in common schools.”
“We are demanding the DOE reopen and give parents an actual public school option that meets the state’s constitutional requirement to have public schools, or our lawsuit will continue and the courts will have to force the DOE to reopen them,” he added.
Borelli argued that the current remote and blended learning models offered by the DOE do not meet the New York State constitutional requirement for public education in “common schools” due to the uniquely complicated circumstances under which students are being taught.
“I’m excited to see how the DOE tries to defend remote learning as meeting that constitutional right,” Borelli said. “I would be shocked to hear people on the other side from us try to advocate for remote learning meeting those requirements.”
Those New York City public school students participating in the blended learning model go to school two to three days a week and learn remotely on the other days. Parents also have the choice of students learning remotely full-time.
‘THIS IS OUR CHILDREN’
Attorneys Mark Fonte, Lou Gelormino and James Mermigis will represent the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit, which is expected to be filed within the next two weeks.
“Here’s the bottom line, it’s Oct. 1 and our kids are not in school. Our children are not in school. Our children. This isn’t a restaurant. This isn’t a business. This is our children, and we will do anything we can to fight for our children,” Gelormino said.
The city returned students to school buildings in phases, with the academic year kicking off for some in-person and all remote learners on Sept. 21.
Students in 3-K, pre-K, and District 75 were the first to begin reporting for in-person learning on Sept. 21, followed by K-5 and K-8 students on Tuesday. On Thursday, middle and high school students began their return to campus.
“I promise you, as a father, that we will do everything we can to end remote learning and get our children back in the classroom where they belong,” Fonte added.
Parents looking to join the class action lawsuit have been asked to visit the Parents Against Remote Learning website at PARENYC.com.
“This is a distraction from real news: today, we are officially open for in-person learning in every grade, and students will continue receiving high-quality instruction five days a week in a way that keeps our communities safe and helps prevent the spread of the virus. As we continue to navigate a global pandemic, our reopening plan prioritizes the health and safety of our students and staff, and is in line with guidance issued by federal, state, and local health experts,” said DOE spokeswoman Danielle Filson.
‘IT’S NOT WORKING’
Erin Ulitto, a first-grade mother and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, spoke about the struggles her special needs son has experienced with remote learning — struggles that have at times left both of them frustrated and in tears.
“Remote learning does not work for my son. He’s 6 years old, in first grade and has special needs. He’s in District 31, and the remote learning is not an option for him. He’s at a crucial time in his life where he needs his services. He needs in-person therapy,” Ulitto said.
“It’s not working. I open the computer, he closes the computer. He runs away, he cries, he screams. It just ends with both of us crying at the end of the day. It just doesn’t work,” she added.
IN-PERSON, YET VIRTUAL
Jayce Nicholls, president of the Tottenville High School PTA, spoke about the unique challenges her school is facing, with limited staffing forcing the school to provide virtual instruction even on days when blended learners are physically in the school building.
“Tottenville High School students right now who are in-person are sitting in front of a computer with no teacher teaching them. They are learning through a computer while their teacher is in another room,” said Nicholls.
All students at Tottenville High School in Huguenot and Susan E. Wagner High School in Sea View are currently receiving instruction virtually — which means there is not traditional live in-person instruction — but students in the blended learning model are still on campus on their designated days.
“My daughter is in pre-calculus. She cannot learn pre-calculus from a computer; she needs a teacher,” Nicholls said.
Students at the two high schools are being provided educational support by qualified educators in-person, in addition to receiving virtual instruction from teachers, the DOE said. That means that students at Tottenville and Wagner arrive to school on their blended learning days and sit in a classroom to learn remotely with their device.
Kate Reilly, a junior at New Dorp High School and daughter of Assemblyman Michael Reilly (R-South Shore), spoke from a student perspective about her desire to return to the classroom on a regular basis.
“This is one of the most important years of my school career. It’s ridiculous that we can’t be in school full time. I speak on behalf of every single student I’ve know and we miss school. We need school. We miss socializing. We miss our teachers. We miss learning. We’re not getting anything from virtual school,” Reilly said.