Nearly two dozen New York City public school parents are suing Mayor Bill de Blasio and his schools chancellor Meisha Porter in an attempt to force the full return of in-person learning before the end of the school year.
The suit, spearheaded by a group of Upper West Side mothers, was filed in State Supreme Court on Tuesday night. It argues that the city’s COVID-19 restrictions are depriving public school students of their constitutional right to a sound education, leaving children depressed, and in some cases suicidal.
“On the days they’re in person they’re thriving, they look energized and inspired,” Natalya Murakhver, the group’s leader, said of her two children, ages 7 and 10. “On days they’re doing remote they look glazed, like zombies.”
The suit comes as the city has moved to ease some of its COVID-19 protocols, such as loosening a rule that forced schools to shut down after two unconnected cases and allowing elementary schools to use three feet, instead of six, for distancing under new federal guidelines.
More than half of the city’s schools are now offering in-person instruction five days a week, according to the Department of Education, though it’s unclear how many students are actually attending school on a full-time basis. Around 315,000 students are learning in school buildings at least some of the week, with another 51,000 kids set to return on April 26th.
The parents involved in the suit have pushed back on the mayor’s claim, noting that many children who had returned to school buildings were still learning on screens without a teacher present. They say that virus mitigation measures implemented at the start of the pandemic are no longer necessary, but have remained in place because of the mayor’s deference to the United Federation of Teachers
“There was a social contract when we made teachers essential workers,” Murakhver said at a press conference this week. “When they accepted that status, that meant that once they got vaccinated they were needed back in the classroom.”
School officials, meanwhile, have pointed to space constraints, not a lack of teachers, as one reason that some buildings have not resumed full in-person instruction.
“We have more students in classrooms than any other city in America, and all of our schools are open for in-person learning, with the majority offering in-person learning 5 days a week,” Avery Cohen, a mayoral spokesperson said in a statement. “It’s clear that New York City has set the reopening gold standard for districts across the country, and we will review this suit when it’s filed.”
Some New York City educators also rejected the idea that teachers or their union were to blame for the continued reliance on remote learning. Even after the city opened a new opt-in period for remote students to return to in-person learning, nearly two-thirds of the city’s 1 million public school students have elected to finish the year at home.
“Most teachers want to be in the classroom,” Aaron Benoit, a high school English teacher in Bed-Stuy, told Gothamist. “The fact is there are still a large number of families without access to or hesitant to take the vaccine and the nearly empty classrooms in my school building are indicative of this.”
The legal effort also underscored the fraught political alliance between public school families eager for a return to school and hard-line opponents of COVID-19 restrictions. While the effort was organized and funded by self-described liberal parents in upper Manhattan, the attorney behind the effort, Jim Mermigis, is an outspoken Trump supporter and staunch anti-vaxxer.
Since the start of the pandemic, Mermigis has filed more than half a dozen lawsuits against de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo to lift a range of pandemic restrictions, with little success so far.
At the press conference on Monday, Mermigis stood alongside the parents, as well as Zach Iscol, an NYC Comptroller candidate. When Iscol told Gothamist that he supported mandatory vaccines for all teachers, Mermigis quickly dismissed the notion, while parents said the question wasn’t relevant to their demands.
“It’s not political. This is education we’re talking about,” said Alison Weinger, another Upper West Side parent who supports the lawsuit. “There isn’t anyone I’ve heard who has been advocating for children’s education, and that’s why we’re here.”