Community members are crediting a lawsuit filed by Bais Yaakov Ateres Miriam in Far Rockaway and two Inwood parents with students at the school with accelerating Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to eliminate mandatory closures for Queens public and religious schools.
“We are grateful the lockdown order has been loosened and our children can get back to praying and learning together with their classmates,” said Chana Lebovits, mother of two BYAM. “The Governor should never have targeted the Jewish community for his lockdown or his statements.”
“It’s unfortunate it took a lawsuit to bring us to this point, but we are grateful the Governor has heard our plea and taken action to loosen the restrictions on Far Rockaway,” said Rabbi Nosson Neuman, menahel of Bais Yaakov Ateres Miriam. “At the end of the day, this is about the children, and getting our children and those of the entire community back into the classroom in a safe and legal way is the only goal.”
With help from Becket Law and the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, Yitzchok and Chana Lebovits asked the court to punish Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio for targeting the Orthodox Jewish community. Among other things, the lawsuit emphasized a recording of a conversation Governor Cuomo had with a group of rabbis in which he acknowledged that the policy was not tailored, was cut by a “hatchet,” and was driven by fear.
The lawsuit alleged that Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio had illegally discriminated against the school, even though there had been no cases of COVID and both officials had previously admitted that schools have not been spreading the virus.
The Governor’s policy — announced October 6 — was set to be reviewed in two weeks, and he indicated October 19 that he would have an announcement October 21.
“The Governor shouldn’t have needed a lawsuit to tell him that shutting down Jewish schools was wrong. This was the worst kind of unscientific and harmful scapegoating, as the Governor himself knew that schools weren’t a problem,” said Mark Rienzi, president of Becket and counsel to the plaintiffs. “If Governor Cuomo wants respect, he has to give respect. Reopening the schools in Far Rockaway is a start, but elected officials have a lot of work to do to repair the pain and division they have caused.”
Beginning in March, BYAM voluntarily transitioned to remote learning in compliance with the law. In the months that followed, the school spent thousands of dollars equipping teachers with resources they would need to effectively teach over Zoom. Nevertheless, remote learning proved to be a poor substitute for in-person instruction. Students have suffered academically. Teachers have reported alarming regression in reading skills, had to reteach prayers, and are requesting last year’s math textbooks.