Catholic schools in the archdiocese, along with several Catholic school parents, have filed a lawsuit seeking to compel the New York City Department of Education to live up to its legal obligation to provide Covid-19 testing for its students, as required by New York state law. The case was filed Nov. 18 in New York State Supreme Court on Staten Island. A hearing is set for Monday, Nov. 23, at 2:30 p.m.
The archdiocese announced the suit Nov. 19.
The suit seeks immediate relief from the city Department of Education to fulfill its legal mandate to provide services described in section 912 of New York State Education Law. The section requires school boards to provide children attending nonpublic schools within their districts with “all of the health and welfare services” they provide to their public school students, including “the administration of health screening tests.”
The filing asserts that the city has thus far provided Catholic and other non-governmental schools with different and inferior testing options, in clear disregard of the requirements of the education law.
Given the current spike in Covid-19 cases, Catholic schools and school parents are seeking emergency relief from the court so that students, families, faculty and staff can continue to educate safely and comply with state guidelines.
Michael Deegan, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese, spoke Nov. 17 on Cardinal Dolan’s radio show, “Conversation With Cardinal Dolan” on SiriusXM channel 129, the Catholic Channel. “Much to our utter frustration and anger, when we turned to the New York City Department of Education to provide the exact same testing program that they’re doing in the public schools, we were told no. They stepped away from us, they basically said, we’ll give you the kit, but you’re on your own.
“And that is absolutely unfair,” Deegan said. “We’re not asking for anything more than what is being provided for the public school children in New York City and, frankly, throughout this state.
“We have the law on our side,” Deegan said, noting they have worked with the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio to reconcile the difference and provide the testing.
“They have failed to do it,” Deegan said. “And as a result of that, the Catholic schools of the archdiocese are going to go to court and argue our case that we are entitled to the same health and safety protocols that the public schools are getting.”
The bottom line, the superintendent of schools concluded, is “all about making sure that our children and our teachers and staffs are protected and that we comply with the law.”
Cardinal Dolan thanked Deegan for his leadership and said, “This is a case of fairness, this is a case of justice, this is a case of religious liberty. The government has the duty to protect all our kids,” emphasizing “all our kids.”
“Where they’re at is secondary,” the cardinal added.
Catholic schools on Staten Island reopened to in-person learning Nov. 16, after a two-day return to remote learning Nov. 12 and 13 as a substantial portion of Staten Island was recently categorized as a yellow zone in conjunction with the coronavirus pandemic.
The yellow zone classification came as the average Covid-19 positivity rates in many areas of Staten Island rose to as high as 5.2 percent and daily hospital admissions increased.
At issue for Catholic schools is the lack of availability of coronavirus testing, Deegan explained in recent letters to Catholic school families posted on the website catholicschoolsny.org.
The city and New York state “can say they are providing a free test kit,” Deegan said, “but they are not providing staff, paying for a lab to complete the processing, nor creating the reports which schools must submit to the state. This is not parity under the law.”
Deegan said that since Sept. 9, Catholic schools have provided safe, in-person learning. “We will continue to remain faithful to all the health and safety protocols and procedures as laid out by federal, state and city health officials and the Catholic Schools Reopening Plan. We intend to keep our buildings open regardless of decisions made by Mayor de Blasio regarding NYC public schools.”
Catholic schools in the archdiocese operate independently of New York City public schools, Deegan concluded, and assured that Catholic schools will remain open until the Health and Safety Task Force of the Office of the Superintendent, working with officials from the New York State Department of Health and the governor’s office, determines otherwise.