1st suit of its kind: California failing to meet needs of students, teachers during pandemic

Black and Latinx students from low-income families are being deprived of their fundamental right to a free and equal education guaranteed by the California Constitution as a result of distance learning, according to seven families who filed an unprecedented lawsuit over what they describe as the unfair nature of distance learning. 

"These conditions would be unacceptable in wealthier, whiter communities and do not meet the minimum standards set by the California legislature for the 2020-2021 school year," the suit states, "which the state has done nothing to enforce."

The suit was filed Monday in Alameda County Superior Court by attorneys from the Public Counsel in Los Angeles and Morrison & Foerster in San Francisco. They are suing the state Supt. Tony Thurmond and the California Department of Education. 

In a statement, Thurmond said: “There is no question that this pandemic has disproportionately impacted those who have been made vulnerable by historic and systemic inequities. That is why, from Day One of this public health crisis, I have charged my team to maintain an ongoing and urgent focus on addressing the numerous access and opportunity gaps that impact student learning."

Since the spring, Thurmond said the state has secured hundreds of thousands of computers,  pressured internet service providers to expand access, bolstered mental health and counseling resources, made it easier for schools to provide meals, and provided published guidance and  training opportunities for educators. 

"As California experiences a dramatic surge in COVID-19 infections," Thurmond said, "we will maintain a laser focus on protecting the health and safety of our school communities while providing the supports needed to ensure learning continues and, where gaps persist, is improved.” 

But not everyone feels the state has done enough. 

In September, nine parents filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles, alleging the district there has a distance learning program that fails to meet state educational standards and disproportionately harms Black and Latino students.

But as far as these attorneys know, this is the first suit in the nation against a state for failure to meet the educational needs of students and teachers during the pandemic.

The plaintiffs are students of color who are also economically disadvantaged: Cayla J., Kai J., Ellori J., Megan O., Matilda O., Maria O., Alex R., Bella R., Matthew E., Jordan E., Tamara I., Isaac I., Joshua I., Natalia T., Billy T., and Daniel A.  Other plaintiffs include Oakland REACH, which has been providing a virtual learning community hub for nearly 400 students during the pandemic, as well as the Community Coalition in Los Angeles.

These community organizations say that they have been able to provide "high-quality remote learning" for underserved students, but these successes cost money, which they argue the state of California should pay for. For example, Lakisha Young, executive director of The Oakland REACH, said her group is providing virtual learning to about 350 students, and many of their reading levels have increased, as proof that distance learning can work if executed properly. Currently, the 14 teachers and family liaison are paid for with philanthropic dollars. 

"We as parents had to step up to fill that gap," said Young, who is a mother of three children in Oakland public schools. "There is a lot of learning loss here. It's not OK to say 'We're doing the best we can.' " 

She said that the suit doesn't just point out problems, but also solutions: In her mind, the state should fund community hubs such as hers where students come for in-person educational help. In addition, the suit asks the state to share a plan for how educators will get students back on track when they return to the classroom, both in terms of academics and mental health support.

The suit points out that the Digital Divide is nothing new, but that the coronavirus pandemic has only made this situation worse. For example, many private schools in California have gone back to school and Gov. Gavin Newsom's children are back in class at their private campus. But for the most part, many of the large, public school districts are not. 

For many families, the suit states, a single room in a home or apartment is now a multi-grade classroom as well as a workplace for several adults. And for students without homes, school is now wherever they can find an internet connection, which was the case for two girls who were forced to use WiFi at a Taco Bell in Salinas and a pair of sisters in San Jose who did their homework at a gas station.

"The State continues to refuse to step up and meet its constitutional obligation to ensure basic educational equality or indeed any education at all," the suit alleges. "It is incumbent on the State and its officers to get underserved students through the pandemic with an education that does not widen the gap between them and their more privileged counterparts—a gap that they will struggle to overcome for the rest of their lives."

For example, 12-year-old Matthew E., who goes to school in Oakland, said his family has only one Google Chromebook, which he had to share for a while with his brother, Jordan E. Their mother cannot afford to spend another $300. Despite donations of computers to Oakland schools, the family said they have not been offered a hotspot and struggle with receiving consistent internet.  

Like this family, many students still do not have access to the proper devices, connectivity and other digital tools necessary for remote education, the suit states.  And without these basics, they cannot learn to read or write properly, perform basic math functions, or comprehend other state-mandated content.

The families argue there are also serious bars to realistic remote learning despite the best efforts of teachers, including getting devices and software to work, not having the proper academic or mental health support, English language barriers and proper training. 

The suit highlights many individual situations including the tale of 8-year-old twins, Cayla and Kai J., who are 3rd-graders in the Oakland Unified School District, and their sister, Ellori, who is now in the 1st grade. 

Cayla wants to be a doctor when she grows up and Kai wants to be a scientist. Ellori doesn't know yet what she wants to be, but the suit alleges that her teacher this year cannot keep her engaged, especially since the teacher can only see six students on the screen at a time. 

The suit points out that these siblings are Black and low-income. Their mother works two part-time jobs and one full-time job. Their father has a chronic illness. 

Last spring, when distance learning began, the twins' second-grade teacher held class only twice. When their mother asked why the class wasn't meeting more often, the teacher responded that because some of the students in the class were not connected to remote learning, classes were canceled for all students.

Her children weren't offered asynchronous instruction or other work to make up for the missed class time including any book reports, packets, or homework. The mother felt like her children had been written off.

Now in the third grade, the twins are supposed to be doing multiplication and division, but they are still having trouble with subtraction, which they should have learned in second grade.

Now, the siblings begin with a 45-minute video class session, followed by several hours of learning on their own according to a checklist that their teacher provides. Later in the day, the two participate in a 30-minute small group session with their classmates.

But other than those brief sessions, they are on their own for the rest of the day. 

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who has two children at OUSD, had previously stated in October that she believed schools should return to some sort of in-person learning in January.

But on Tuesday, Schaaf changed her tone in light of the surge in virus cases throughout the state and country. 

Asked if she thought Oakland schools should return next month, Schaff answered: "No, I don't." 

She said she knows of parents who are skeptical that the schools can reopen safely and she also knows of parents who are champing at the bit to get their children back in class with real-live instruction.

"We've got to come up with a plan," Schaaf said, "because both are reasonable attitudes." 

Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at lisa.fernandez@foxtv.com or call her at (510) 874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez.