Parent sues Hudson as schools resume in-person classes amid COVID-19 surge

Doug Livingston
Akron Beacon Journal

An earlier version of this story reported an inaccurate vote count on the school board's consideration to bring back high school students five days a week. The measure failed but two members supported it.

A Hudson parent is suing over a districtwide decision last week that returned thousands of children to classrooms Monday as COVID-19 cases surge in Ohio and Summit County.

The lawsuit may be the first in Ohio as parents and school districts have tried for months to comfortably balance the social well-being and education of students with the risks of exposing them, their families and their communities to the coronavirus.

Outside of Ohio, school reopening lawsuits are mostly targeting governors. In California, parents are suing to overturn a ban on in-class instruction in 30 counties. In Florida and Iowa, teachers and staff are suing statewide orders to bring kids back.

The Hudson lawsuit filed by Jennifer Grega on Friday asks Summit County Judge Susan Baker Ross to block a decision made Oct. 12 by the local school board. Following that decision and after consulting with the county health commissioner Thursday about an increase in coronavirus cases, Superintendent Phil Herman moved to implement the new rules Monday, accelerating the district’s staggered reopening plan by requiring hundreds of younger students to report to class.

Grega has two children. The new rules require her youngest, who is in middle school, to rejoin her peers this week. If the child doesn’t go to school, she will be marked absent. Truancy laws could eventually force the mother into compliance.

The legal matter stems from the limited health information available to school districts as they developed safe reopening plans. The plans often involved multiple options tailored to each family's unique health concerns.

"Parents were then forced to make an irrevocable choice” to keep their children home and learning online or allow the district to use available health data to stagger them back into the classroom depending on case counts, said Grega’s attorney, Brenden P. Kelley.

“Parents made that choice and they thought the school board would follow the plan they adopted. But obviously we’ve all heard the news. COVID has come roaring back through Ohio,” Kelley said.

The district this summer required parents to pick one of two options for student instruction: online only or a tiered plan that – depending on a color-coded map the state releases weekly to assess COVID-19 risks by county – would have kids learning either in class, partly online or remotely.

“Once they signed up for this plan, they were stuck with it,” said Kelley.

School administrators told parents that they and faculty would be consulted when the district reviewed its plan in September, said district spokeswoman Sheryl Sheatzley. Surveys reported last week found most parents comfortable with younger children returning to the classroom but not older students, who require less help to learn online.

With the district still unable to guarantee 6 feet of distance between classroom desks (and in some cases achieving only 3 feet of separation), more than 60% of teachers surveyed said they were not comfortable with returning to in-class instruction.

Superintendent Herman presented more granular health data showing cases in the surrounding 44236 zip code, as well as cases reported in neighboring communities and schools that pioneered the move back to in-class instruction five days a week.

The board voted unanimously for in-class education in grades K-5 and 4-1 for in-class education in grades 6-8. Only two of three members voted to relax the rules for high school students.

"Weighing all of these present data points and safety factors, Hudson City Schools will begin the 'All-In' model, K-8, and continue the Hybrid model, grades 9-12, on October 19th as previously announced," Superintendent Herman wrote in a letter to parents.

Now, parents like Grega are stuck with a decision they made when the district was relying heavily on the state's mapping, which put Summit, Portage and Stark counties in the red on Thursday, just days after the school board voted last week.

The district has asked the judge to allow for a legal response to the lawsuit. In a public statement to parents, Herman updated the Hudson community.

"The Hudson City School District believes, when prudent, children need to be in school," he said. "Again, we will continue to implement all layers of safety for our students and staff, closely monitor all of our buildings and evaluate the learning models for all students to achieve our overall goal of providing an excellent experience in as safe an environment as possible. We will continue to keep you informed about any changes that may impact our district, its operations, and our school families."

Sheatzley confirmed Monday morning that students are back in class. School administrators are waiting for Apex, a software company hired to assist teachers in delivering the online instruction, to wrap up current coursework before K-5 students can pick another learning option in November or in January for students in grades 6-12.

Of the district's roughly 4,600 students, about 670 elected the online-only option, said Sheatzley. The rest should be back in school (or marked absent) unless they attend the high school.

Some exceptions have been made for mostly special needs students with unique learning and health challenges, Sheatzley said. These “cases by case” decisions to move children slated to go back to an all-online model instead has not been extended to parents like Grega.

They are now being forced to either keep their children home, flouting truancy laws while forgoing their constitutional right to an education, or send them back to school, “putting the children, their families and quite frankly the community at risk for spreading this disease," said Kelley.

Reach Beacon Journal reporter Doug Livingston at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.