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A 10-year-old Buffalo Public Schools student is returning to class after his family's ADA lawsuit

 Pictured is Edward H. Speidel (left), Amy Szafranski (back) and their youngest child J.S. (center) and eldest child Katelyn Speidel (right) outside of their home in South Buffalo on January 26, 2021. Edward and Amy also have two middle children who are not pictured.
Emyle Watkins
Pictured is Edward H. Speidel (left), Amy Szafranski (back) and their youngest child J.S. (center) and eldest child Katelyn Speidel (right) outside of their home in South Buffalo on January 26, 2021. Edward and Amy also have two middle children who are not pictured.

On Monday, a 10-year-old Buffalo Public Schools student returned to school for the first time in almost two years, just weeks after his family filed a federal lawsuit against the district, regarding reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

The lawsuit alleges the district did not allow the student, who has a disability where he cannot wear a face mask, to return to school with a face shield, due to a policy that did not allow for any “exemptions” to masking during red zones.

WBFO’s Disability Reporter Emyle Watkins spoke with the lawyer for the family, Rebecca Izzo, about the student’s first day back and what this means for other students.

Rebecca Izzo, a lawyer at Connors LLP, is pictured in an undated headshot.


Emyle Watkins: Hi, Rebecca, thanks for joining us on Morning Edition.

Rebecca Izzo: Thanks so much, Emyle. Great to be here.

Emyle Watkins: To start, could you give our listeners who might not be familiar, a little background on your clients' situation?

Rebecca Izzo: Absolutely. So my client J.S. is a fifth grade student in the Buffalo Public Schools. And in August 2021, the Buffalo school district passed a policy where they would not permit any mask exemptions for students who were unable to wear a mask due to a disability. And that's the category J.S. falls in. He has autism and something called PICA, where he eats non-food items, and so he's unable to wear a face mask. He is however, able to wear a face shield and so the family advocated and advocated and tried to get him back into school with the face shield instead of the face mask.

Rebecca Izzo: Ultimately, we had to bring a federal lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, saying that it discriminated against him to not provide that reasonable accommodation allowing him to attend with the face shield. Less than a week after we filed the lawsuit, the district agreed to let him back in with the face shield.

Emyle Watkins: And so Monday, J.S. went back to school, how did that go?

Rebecca Izzo: He, broadly, he had a good day, particularly considering how long he's been out. The family is really grateful to the staff, the teachers, and his classmates who welcomed him back with open arms. Aside from an issue with the bus arriving on time, he, broadly, he had a good day, you know, it's going to be an adjustment, we'll have to see how it goes over the next few weeks. But it's hard to overstate, Emyle, how significant it is for this child to be back in school, in person, with his classmates and his teachers.

Emyle Watkins: Did the family give you any idea of how J.S. was feeling after today or how they feel after his first day back?

Rebecca Izzo: I think they felt like they would believe it when they saw it. And it's just been such a fight to get here. So they're grateful, they're relieved, that he did get to school. It's just been such a long road to get here. And I think they're hopeful that J.S. will continue to be able to be back in school where he needs to be, with his classmates, with his teachers, so that he can participate in the public education that he deserves.

Emyle Watkins: And I know this case impacts more than just J.S. Have you heard anything from Buffalo Public Schools about how the return to school for other children with accommodations is going?

Rebecca Izzo: Yeah, so our understanding is that there are other students like J.S. who were excluded because they could not wear a mask due to a disability, who are now being allowed to return. We're, you know, we're monitoring that situation, and my understanding is that they are gradually being allowed back. It's something that is really important to this family along with J.S. being able to go back, that this policy, this illegal policy, is no longer in place. That's huge. And as I said, we, our understanding is that other students are being allowed back. And we're monitoring that and trying to make sure that that does in fact continue to happen.

Emyle Watkins: And is there anything else that you'd like to add or feel people should know about this situation?

Rebecca Izzo: I think that it is crucial that these students are able to be in person, accessing their public schools, with their peers. And it was an important step today that J.S. was able to set foot in his school building for the first time in almost two years. And I hope that this progress will continue and that the district will not ignore students like J.S. as this goes forward.

Emyle Watkins: Well, thank you so much, Rebecca. I hope you have a great rest of your day.

Rebecca Izzo: Thanks so much Emyle.

If you are the parent of a child with a disability:
Izzo also shared that families who have been remote due to the face mask policy, or who may need accommodation, should contact the district and go through the request process. You can click here to view the district’s medical request page, which includes how to file a request and what documentation is needed for a request.

Emyle Watkins