By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

A group of Montclair parents has filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the Montclair school district, looking to bring students and teachers back to classes full time, five days a week.

The lawsuit by eight families was filed last week, but was not reported by news publications at the time. It says the remote-only learning Montclair schools have had in place since the coronavirus pandemic hit New Jersey last March has denied their children the right to an effective education.

“At the beginning of this pandemic, virtual learning was an understandable situation and temporary exercise,” a statement from the parents sent to Montclair Local Tuesday, Feb. 24,  said. “At this point, a year later, it is abundantly clear that there is a collective and ongoing failure by those entrusted to protect the welfare of the children of our community.” 

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The lawsuit comes as the district continues to pursue its own litigation against the Montclair Education Association, after members refused to return for a hybrid learning schedule in January. The MEA contends district facilities aren’t safe enough from the coronavirus, and that it hasn’t received enough information from district leaders to satisfy its concerns. 

The district said in its own lawsuit that the MEA members’ refusal to come back potentially exposed the district to litigation.

The new lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for New Jersey, names the school board, the district and schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds. The superintendent declined comment Wednesday, and the MEA has not yet replied. 

Steve Baffico, one of the parents filing the suit, said the families are in an “unfortunate situation.” but called the suit “a necessary tool at this point.” He said it could put additional pressure on the district in its litigation against the MEA, and help bring about a resolution. Baffico said the request for full-time instruction was for an “optimal starting point.” 

Baffico said since Montclair Local first reported the parents’ suit online, he’d heard from several other families who want to sign on. He said the case was filed in federal court because it concerns constitutional and civil rights issues. 

He said the lawsuit has been in discussion for months among the involved parents — who all knew each other and have been in touch throughout remote learning — and that they consider themselves representative of families across the district who are becoming increasingly frustrated.

In the new lawsuit, the families — of mostly elementary-school-aged children — describe their children suffering emotional, mental health and academic problems as a result of prolonged virtual learning. 

The lawsuit says one child, identified as C.A.L., was experiencing heightened anxiety, trichotillomania (a hair-pulling disorder), sleep disorders and depression.

“She is in weekly therapy to help her manage these awful feelings that she doesn’t understand,” the suit states. 

Another child, identified as G.S., had previously been reading and writing above grade level, but has since regressed to below grade level, the lawsuit states. A third child, I.S.M., is described as having been an enthusiastic student whose interest and motivation declined amid remote learning. According to the lawsuit, she began showing anger and signs of depression, to the point that her parents pulled her out of remote school and began home-schooling her. 

“With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, defendants have effectively put the interests of the children they serve dead last,” the lawsuit states. “With their arbitrary rules that fly in the face of the recommendations of experts across different disciplines, the children of the district have been deprived of their right to an education. Sadly, there has been no one to speak for our children over the last 12 months as they silently suffered with remote learning. This lawsuit seeks to remedy the situation on their behalf.”

A similar lawsuit has been brought against the South Orange-Maplewood school district. The plaintiffs in the Montclair and South Orange-Maplewood lawsuits are being represented by the same lawyer, Keri Donohue Avellini. The South Orange-Maplewood school system is also separately suing the teachers union there, alleging members are conducting an illegal strike by refusing to return to classrooms — the same claim at the heart of the Montclair district’s suit against the MEA.

Montclair has attempted three times this school year to reopen for in-person learning. All three of the reopening dates, in September, November and January, were delayed. The most recent return date, Jan. 25, was put off after the district could not get enough teachers to report to work in person to staff the schools. 

A statement released by the parents involved in the suit blames the school board and the MEA for not being able to work together to find reasonable solutions. 

“Importantly, our lawsuit forcefully creates an active voice and a seat at the negotiating table for plaintiffs to act on behalf of Montclair families, students, those with special needs, those experiencing challenging circumstances as a result of continued remote learning, and those who have been left far behind as a result of no visible prospect for return to in-person learning,” Baffico said in a statement sent to Montclair Local. 

“The children are the most critical constituents, yet have not had a voice and/or an advocate to this point to affect an outcome in their favor. Our suit provides that voice and creates an active role for us in finding a resolution and getting the schools open for in-person learning.” 

Baffico told Montclair Local the parents’ suit is supported by science and data showing it’s safe to reopen schools, and he said the same applies to the district’s suit against the MEA. Gov. Phil Murphy and the Biden administration have encouraged schools to hold at least some in-person learning — and an executive order from the governor directs New Jersey schools to do so if they can, safely, or present plans and timelines to do so if they can’t yet. But the MEA cites ventilation problems and other structural issues at buildings, as well as questions about safety procedures, saying it doesn’t yet have assurances classes can be conducted safely.