Judge denies injunction, but says lack of in-person instruction has hurt students

Apr 28, 2021

A State Supreme Court justice has denied injunctions sought by parent groups in the Williamsville and Orchard Park school districts, but agrees with the argument that students have been harmed by a lack of in-person instruction. The plaintiffs will get another chance to have their cases considered beginning next week.

Judge Emilio Colaiacovo, as part of his written decision issued late Wednesday morning, has ordered two hearings, the first scheduled for May 7, during which time the merits of the parents' complaints will be further evaluated.

A view of Orchard Park Middle School, within one of the two districts named in litigation by parents seeking the restoration of five-day-a-week in-person instruction and easing of other COVID-related restrictions imposed by the state.
Credit Orchard Park Central Schools

On April 9, the New York State Health Department issued updated COVID guidelines regarding schools, allowing students to return at three-foot distancing instead of six-foot distancing. However, middle schools and high schools in districts where COVID transmission is deemed higher are to remain at six-foot distancing.

The parental groups in Williamsville and Orchard Park who sought the preliminary injunction are seeking the availability of in-person learning for five days a week. Named as defendants in their respective lawsuits are the State Health Department, State Education Department, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the two school districts.

Judge Colaiacovo, while denying the preliminary injunction, agreed with the view that students who have been forced to undergo remote or hybrid (some in-class and some remote) learning models have suffered physical and mental harm as a result.

“Contrary to the Respondent’s arguments, Petitioners have demonstrated irreparable harm,” he wrote. “Petitioner’s moving affidavits demonstrate the physical and psychological harm caused by the lasting effects of Hybrid/Remote Learning. While Respondents seek to dismiss the connection, no other logical conclusion can be reached when students, who otherwise have no reported academic, social or behavior issues, now are listless, cannot get out of bed, have been diagnosed with depression, have attempted self-harm, and act aggressively towards others. The issues raised by parents in these affidavits cannot be ignored and they certainly show the irreparable harm they will face if Williamsville and Orchard Park continue to reply on the Hybrid/Remote Learning models.”

In his written decision, Justice Colaiacovo explained that the upcoming hearings will help better determine whether the state's guidelines are reasonable and appropriate at this stage of the COVID pandemic.

“It seems that ‘zero has become the only tolerable risk level,’ for schools even as every other business, forum, industry, or profession is opening up,” the judge wrote. “However, ‘reasonable policies cannot sprout from unreasonable levels of risk tolerance.’ More needs to be done by those entrusted with the public’s confidence to weigh how much longer these Hybrid/Remote Learning models, which are not a suitable alternative for in-person learning, should continue and how an apparent three (3) foot distance differential is more necessary than returning ALL children to the classroom where they belong.”