NJ lawsuit seeks to block remote learning on behalf of special-education students
Megan Graziano, Passaic Co. 2020-21 Teacher of Year by Governor's Educator of the Year Program, discusses rewards and challenges to teaching remotely. NorthJersey.com
A group of New Jersey parents has gone to court to bar schools across the state from switching to remote learning, arguing that online instruction violates the rights of students with disabilities.
A federal judge has set a Friday deadline for the state and 19 school districts named in the lawsuit – including Camden, Toms River, Cape May and Roxbury in Morris County – to respond with details about their virtual-learning programs.
The motion filed by Manhattan attorney Patrick Donohue and his nonprofit Brain Injury Rights Group comes as schools around New Jersey have curtailed in-person learning amid another surge in the coronavirus. In North Jersey, Hackensack, Teaneck, Paterson, Dover and Sparta, among others, are all operating remotely this week.
Remote learning has had disastrous consequences for special-education students, said Donohue, who filed a similar motion in Michigan this week and says he plans to take the fight to other states.
“It is inexcusable for school districts to continue to violate the rights of special education students by closing schools," he said in a statement. "Shame on those who were silent while the greatest case of child sacrifice occurs in human history! Where is Gov. Phil Murphy?”
Donohue on Monday asked U.S. District Court Judge John Michael Vazquez to issue a temporary restraining order forbidding districts from closing schools. The motion was filed in federal court in Newark and lists 13 parents of special-education students as plaintiffs.
"Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have learned that students attending school remotely suffer socially, emotionally, and academically," the motion says. "Special-education students suffer more so than non-disabled students."
The state Department of Education "doesn't publicly comment on matters involving pending litigation," spokesperson Michael Yaple said in an email.
A wintertime spike in COVID infections has shattered records in recent weeks, with the state announcing another 27,404 cases on Thursday. Hospitalizations climbed to almost 5,600, rivaling levels seen during the deadly first wave of the pandemic in spring 2020, though there are signs that new infections have often been more mild.
Donohue's motion is the latest salvo in a class-action lawsuit filed in October on behalf of special-education students. The suit seeks to resume services outlined in students’ education plans, or to force districts to issue vouchers so parents can pay for supplemental resources.
Regardless of whether motivated by staff shortages or inhibiting the spread of COVID, school closings have unfairly harmed the parents who brought the suit who rely on individualized education programs (IEPs) for the welfare of their children, Donohue said.
IEPs are plans hashed out by families and local school officials, along with special education teachers and psychologists, who tailor curriculum guidelines to meet the physical, emotional and behavioral needs of students with disabilities.
Not providing the services laid out in these plans violates students’ civil rights under the federal Individuals with Disability Education Act, the plaintiffs said.
Monday's motion called out a number of local districts that have gone remote or substantially reduced instruction time, including those in Newark, Jersey City, Hackensack, West Orange and the South Orange-Maplewood district.
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Closings are “illegal” and violate the “rights of each special-education student” whenever decisions are made without the consent of parents, Donohue said. When there are disagreements over which services are to be offered, students are supposed to remain in their current programs until they are resolved, Donohue said.
There were 223,903 New Jersey students between the ages of 5 and 21 in special-education programs in 2020, according to the most recent figures from the state Department of Education.
Other New Jersey school districts named in the suit are Camden City School District, New Brunswick, Pennsauken, Union City, West New York, Trenton, Bridgeton, Black Horse Pike Regional School District, Plainfield, Rahway, Merchantville, Lower Cape May Regional School District, Lower Township Elementary School District, and Burlington City schools.
Families and advocates of people with disabilities stress the importance of routines and in-person instruction for some students in these programs. Students on the autism spectrum, for example, suffer larger setbacks when personal interactions and schedules are taken away.
“Kids with autism have a lot of deficits in communication and socialization areas, so learning through a computer screen presents a challenge,” said Leah Farinola, the principal of REED Academy in Oakland, which is geared to students with autism. Farinola is not connected to the suit.
Recognizing that challenge, the Bergen County school has stayed open through the pandemic. Some students lose more ground than others when schools close, she said.
Gene Myers is a reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.