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Buffalo Schools reopen amidst legal challenge from Buffalo Teachers Union

It was the first time students returned to Buffalo school buildings since March of last year.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Public School District reopened for in-person instruction as scheduled on Monday. It was the first student entry into Buffalo school buildings since March of last year. 

It included invited groups of pre-K through second grade, high school seniors, and an estimated 50 to 100 designated highest need students in the 60 school buildings. Other grades and students will be added in intervals depending on recommendations and pandemic conditions. 

But that reopening played out just as the teachers union and the school district were discussing COVID safety issues with a judge Monday as part of the union's legal challenge. 

Despite light snow and the cold as students arrived Monday morning, it was almost like a pep rally (complete with a school mascot) and press conference for Buffalo School District officials and other political and community leaders at the Frank Sedita Academy PS 30 School on Vermont Street. 

And as pre-K through second grade, high school seniors and highest need students came back, the very animated superintendent stressed his point. Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash said, "Safety and health is always our first priority. It's the first priority of any leader in any society. We take that very seriously. We mean it. And we have not opened up till today because we take it very seriously."

School Board President Sharon Belton-Cottman added, "As I watch these young scholars come into this building, it brings tears to my eyes to think that anyone would try to interfere with any opportunity that these children will have in having a quality education."

And the district's medical adviser, pediatrician Dr. Dennis Kuo chimed in, even as the superintendent referred to 190 COVID cases since last March in the district. Kuo said, "We know that the risk of transmission in a school is very, very low particularly when the community transmission is under control and we have the safety protocols including the distancing and the sanitation."

But that issue of proper COVID protocols and sanitation is at the core of the teacher's union lawsuit, which seeks to rollback the reopening. A temporary restraining order sought by the Buffalo Teachers Federation was denied by a judge during a conference for attorneys on Monday, but a full hearing on the case is set for Friday. 

The district did acknowledge there was a brief WIFI service outage that affected teachers reporting to schools and trying to conduct remote learning. 

One teacher who informed 2 On Your Side about that outage and who claimed there were other school sanitation issues described it as a "wasted day." And Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore said, "The teachers that I spoke to felt that A. it was unsafe and B. - why did the district have every teacher report whether they're teaching virtually or not. It makes no sense to them."

Dr. Wendy Mistretta, is the president of the BPS District Parent Coordinating Council, she said she heard from parents about the brief internet outage but said overall the first day back was smooth.

"I have not heard anything other than issues with parents who were maybe a bit confused about what to expect but I have not heard anything otherwise detrimental to any of our kids and I am looking forward to the next step when we can bring back a few more," Mistretta said.

When asked if she believes the buildings are safe, Mistretta said the district's health and safety subcommittee has been very responsive and said the district is as prepared as they can be.

And with that safety debate backdrop the superintendent commented about the lower than expected turnout of 2,000 or so students out of 5,000 invited back. 

"Because of all the drama and the fear-mongering that's been going on, a lot of parents listened to that so they backtracked," Cash said. "OK - we had 50 percent scheduled to come back - now we're down to 20 percent in some schools."

That drew this response from Rumore, "To call it fear-mongering is an insult. An absolute insult to any parents that kept their kids home today. And he should apologize to them for saying that."

Whatever the case, Rumore says all teachers are expected to report as the background legal sparring resumes Friday.