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Michigan Catholic schools sue state to be able to stay open

SCHOOL DESK

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John Burger - published on 12/12/20 - updated on 12/12/20

Health and Human Services wants to extend mandated closure.

During three months of in-person classroom instruction at Lansing Catholic High School this fall there were 15 positive cases of COVID-19. All were believed to have been contracted off campus. The school is unaware of any spread of cases within the school, which says it has a robust safety plan in place for its 437 students and 43 faculty members. 

Similarly, at Father Gabriel Richard High School, which has 468 students and 47 faculty, there were only 27 COVID cases. Likewise, these cases are believed to have been contracted off campus and not spread within the school. 

So why, officials of those schools wonder, must schools continue to be closed by order of the state?

It’s why the schools have joined the Michigan Association of Nonpublic Schools (MANS) in filing suit in federal court in the Western District of Michigan against Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) Director Robert Gordon. The suit challenges MDHHS’s order to keep high schools closed for another 12 days without any guaranteed date for reopening.

The suit charges that the order is scientifically, educationally and constitutionally unjustified.

“Today’s order confirms our fear that MDHHS will continue to make decisions about closing schools, and in our specific case Catholic schools, without regard to the obvious and proven efficacy of our local COVID-19 school safety plans nor the uniqueness of our mission-based schools which are protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution,” said Tom Maloney, Superintendent of Schools for the Diocese of Lansing on Monday. “Therefore we support our families and schools in challenging this decision in court.” 

Maloney called the in-person education and formation young people are getting “irreplaceable to their spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and social development.”

The lawsuit claims that Gordon’s December 7, 2020, order — an order extending his closure order from last month — closing religious high schools violates the First Amendment right to practice religion. It seeks protection for all MANS-member schools to reopen legally. 

“All the evidence shows that during the three months we had in-person education at Lansing Catholic there were no COVID-19 outbreaks; no spread of COVID-19; and no hospitalizations of students or staff, thus adding no burden to our healthcare system,” said Dominic Iocco, President of Lansing Catholic High School, which is backing the MANS legal suit. 

“Hence, we simply want to continue with our tried and tested COVID-19 safety plan to safely educate and form our students consistent with our constitutional religious liberties.” 

Also party to the MANS legal action against the MDHHS are numerous Catholic families and parents, including Dr. Christopher J. Abood, M.D., who has a son at Lansing Catholic High School. 

“Like any parents, we obviously want our children educated in the safest of environments and, so, we were very impressed and reassured by the COVID-19 measures put in place by Lansing Catholic, measures that allow our children to flourish in a Catholic environment and that keep both them and our community safe. That’s why our kids need their high school to be open,” said Dr. Abood. 

Dr. William Chavey, a parent at Father Gabriel Richard High School, commented, “As a physician, I have taken care of many patients with COVID and I have great respect for the significance of this pandemic. However, closing schools is aimed narrowly only at physical health.

“Flourishing is a state at which all aspects of a person’s life are good. Adolescents cannot flourish — physically, emotionally, academically, or spiritually — when isolated and relegated to online learning,” Chavey said. “Further, those who have chosen religious schools have done so in an effort to develop their spirituality, and that cannot be done in isolation. Blunting development in these formative years may be irreversible.” 

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other national experts have indicated over and over that schools are safe places largely because they are closely regulated and supervised environments,” said John DeJak, president of Father Gabriel Richard High School. “The truth is that teachers and parents are becoming increasingly concerned by the damage that is being done to our children’s educational, emotional and mental well-being by not being in-person at school.” 

DeJak said that to date, the state has still not explained why they have closed high schools while allowing retail, fitness centers, tattoo parlors, hair salons, and other secular businesses to remain open.

The Michigan Association of Nonpublic Schools represents over 400 schools across the state. Its membership is ecumenical and includes all seven Catholic dioceses in Michigan. The MANS legal papers also reveal that Father Gabriel Richard High School has incurred more than $59,000 in expenses to implement COVID-19 safety precautions, while the figure for Lansing Catholic is $102,000.

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