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Judge to rule on returning middle and high schoolers in Williamsville, Orchard Park

Judge to rule on returning middle and high schoolers in Williamsville, Orchard Park

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Williamsville protest (copy)

Maya Pliss at a protest last fall objecting to remote learning in the Williamsville Central School District.

A full-time return to the classroom begins Monday for elementary students in the Williamsville Central School District, but the fight to bring back all students five days a week amid the Covid-19 pandemic carried on Friday inside a downtown courtroom.

State Supreme Court Justice Emilio Colaiacovo heard arguments for the Williamsville parents who are seeking a temporary injunction that would force the district to return middle and high school students to the classroom on a full-time basis, as well.

Ultimately, the judge reserved decision until he hears a similar case on Tuesday brought against the Orchard Park Central School District.

“The court will reserve decision until the completion of the Orchard Park matter and the court will issue one decision,” Colaiacovo said Friday from the bench.

The state Department of Health two weeks ago changed its guidance to schools so they could space students 3 feet apart in the classroom, as opposed to 6 feet. This allows districts to bring back their elementary students five days a week, most of them starting on Monday.

But, based on guidance from the state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Erie County is still considered a high transmission zone for the virus. Because of that, middle and high schools will have to remain 6 feet apart, which will prevent most of them from bringing back those students full time.

Attorney Todd Aldinger, who represents the Williamsville parents, argued that the guidance to schools is arbitrary and capricious.

He pointed to evidence that indicates there’s no significant difference between 3 feet or 6 feet when it comes to transmission, as long as masks are worn. And of the more than 600 positive cases reported among school-age children in Erie County last week “not a single one of those cases was linked to in-school transmission,” Aldinger said.

Colaiacovo acknowledged his concern for students missing so much in-person instruction and the mental health issues some of them are reportedly struggling with due to the interrupted learning this year. But the judge also questioned whether he has the authority to order the district to return five days a week.

Brian Mahoney, the attorney for Williamsville schools, said the district is simply following guidance from the state Department of Health.

“We’re educators,” Mahoney said, “and we’re following the guidance form the Department of Health. There’s nothing arbitrary and capricious about that.”

Likewise, the state is just following the guidance from the CDC, said Assistant Attorney General David Sleight.

“The CDC is the premiere infectious disease agency in this country,” Sleight said. “Their guidance is the gold standard.”

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