A group of law firms has filed a complaint against the Upper Arlington Schools Board of Education, the district’s superintendent and Franklin County’s two top health officials in hopes of forcing the district to reopen school buildings to students for the 2020-21 school year.
Cooper & Elliott LLC, Poling Law and Koffel Brininger Nesbitt filed the civil lawsuit Aug. 6 in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas.
“We’re filing on behalf of all the families of Upper Arlington that want to have an option,” said Brad Koffel, managing partner of Koffel Brininger Nesbitt. “After heeding all the government’s guidance, these parents want to have an option for in-person school -- the way it’s supposed to be.”
The lawsuit comes after the board voted unanimously July 30 to start the school year with online-only classes through at least Sept. 18 because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
Superintendent Paul Imhoff said the decision was based on guidance from Franklin County Public Health Commissioner Joe Mazzola.
In calling for the court to require the district to reopen to students who want to attend classes when the school year opens Aug. 19, Koffel cited a survey the district conducted before the July 30 announcement of the online-learning model.
That survey showed 72.8% of respondents favored “school-based options” based on the Ohio Public Health Advisory System, a color-coded system designed to supplement existing statewide orders through a data-driven framework to assess the degree of the virus’ spread and to engage and empower individuals, businesses, communities, local governments and others in their response and actions.
Koffel said the plan should allow for students and teachers whose ages and medical conditions might put them at higher risk to take classes or teach remotely using online tools.
All other students and teachers, he said, should attend school five days a week.
“Clearly, we are not in a national lockdown; we are not in a state lockdown, and we’re not in a local lockdown,” Koffel said. “Our schools do not need to be in a lockdown.”
The district responded to the lawsuit in a statement by board President Nancy Drees.
“We all want our students back in school full time,” Dress said. “As educators and school board members, we understand the value of the full in-person school experience and want our students and staff to be able to return to that as soon as it is safe.
“We will continue to follow the science and rely on the experts at the state and local health departments for guidance. In the meantime, we are focused on doing everything possible to support our students and provide high quality educational experiences whether they are in school or learning remotely.”
In recommending no in-person schooling until at least Sept. 18, Imhoff said July 30 it was “critical to be as safe as possible, obviously, with our students and staff, so I certainly support this and believe it's the right thing to do.”
"While there is no possibility of a plan, especially during this global crisis, that would make everyone happy -- we understand that -- I do believe this is the right plan for our schools, and I believe it gives us flexibility to continue to change and adapt as the situation changes," he said.
Imhoff also said July 30 county health officials advised a sustained decrease in the overall coronavirus risk level must be realized for at least four weeks before opening schools.
If such a decrease occurs, he said, a hybrid model could be implemented whereby 50% of students in each building would have attended classes Mondays, Tuesdays and some Wednesdays and the other half would have attended Thursdays, Fridays and some Wednesdays.
By having 50% of students in school buildings each day, Imhoff said, the district would be able to provide the recommended 6-foot distancing standard for students and staff.
In filing the complaint, Koffel also questioned the credentials of Mazzola and Alexandria Jones, assistant health commissioner.
“Commissioner Joe Mazzola has held a Bachelor of Arts degree in marketing from Marietta College and a master’s degree in Public Administration from Kent State University,” the complaint states. “At all times relevant hereto, Assistant Commissioner Alexandria Jones has held a Bachelor of Science in Registered Nursing and a Master of Science in Public Health and Community Nursing.
“Neither Commissioner Joe Mazzola nor Assistant Commissioner Alexandria Jones hold a medical degree, a medical board certification, or practice medicine as a licensed physician in the State of Ohio or any other state. Based on their education, training and experience, Defendants Joe Mazzola and Alexandria Jones are not qualified to render expert medical opinions or make preventive health treatment recommendations to the Upper Arlington School Board or any other entity as a matter of law.”
Mazzola and Jones haven’t responded to ThisWeek’s request for comment.
Koffel said decisions as to whether school buildings should be reopened should be left to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“The Franklin County Board of Health should not be chiming in on this at all unless there’s an outbreak in a school,” Koffel said. “We want to go back to the Upper Arlington school board’s resolution from July 22 that had an in-school option.”
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