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In lawsuit over distance learning, parents accuse San Diego County schools of violating Constitution

A library assistant for the San Diego Unified School District inputs student identification numbers in April 2020.
A library assistant for the San Diego Unified School District inputs student identification numbers in April 2020 to match with Chromebooks that were distributed to students for distance learning. A new lawsuit accuses multiple San Diego County school districts of failing to provide adequate instruction during pandemic closures.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The plaintiffs include five parents who have previously sued over what they argue was inadequate instruction during schools’ pandemic closures.

Five of San Diego County’s largest school districts and one charter school are being sued by parents who say the schools failed to provide adequate instruction to their children during distance learning two years ago in what they allege was a violation of constitutional rights.

Twenty parents and guardians filed the federal lawsuit Aug. 25 against the San Diego Unified, Sweetwater Union High, Chula Vista Elementary, Grossmont Union High and La Mesa-Spring Valley districts and the Helix High charter school in La Mesa. Those schools altogether enroll 184,400 students, almost 40 percent of the county’s public school students.

San Diego Unified includes nine public schools in Point Loma and Ocean Beach.

The lawsuit is one of several that California parents have filed against state and school district officials over distance learning since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The defendant school districts and Helix High declined to comment about the pending litigation. Some said they are still reviewing the lawsuit.

In the lawsuit, which is seeking class-action status, the parents say the schools failed to provide the minimum number of hours of instruction and components of distance learning required by state law during the 2020-21 school year, when schools were closed for months at a time due to COVID-19. For example, some parents said their children sometimes went whole school days without a check-in or instruction from their teacher.

“During the COVID-19-related school closures, children were too often ignored by the public schools that were required to educate them,” Marc Levine, a Los Angeles-based attorney representing the parent plaintiffs, stated in an email. “We are hopeful that, as a result of this action, these children will be given an opportunity to reverse the excessive learning loss they have experienced.”

State law required schools to provide three to four hours of instruction each school day during distance learning, depending on the student’s grade level. Those three to four hours of daily online instruction did not have to consist entirely of live instruction; instead, those hours were to be based on the time value of assignments given.

For distance learning, schools had to provide students with computers, adequate internet connectivity, academic content on par with what they would have received during in-person learning, special education services if needed, and daily live interaction with teachers, which could involve online or telephone communication.

The lawsuit also accuses the districts and Helix of violating state law by offering only distance learning to the vast majority of their students for much of the 2020-21 school year. The plaintiffs point to a state law that said schools and districts “shall offer in-person instruction, and may offer distance learning.”

The plaintiffs allege the defendant schools failed to provide sufficient distance learning and violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

During the 2020-21 year, many schools and districts were at times blocked from reopening for general in-person learning by state public health officials.

Schools and districts were allowed to provide small-group in-person instruction to certain students. But many were barred from reopening for general in-person learning until COVID-19 levels declined in their areas if they had not reopened for in-person learning during fall 2020.

Some districts, including San Diego Unified, Chula Vista Elementary, Sweetwater Union High and La Mesa-Spring Valley, chose to delay reopening for weeks after the state allowed them to reopen, citing continuing COVID-19 health risks.

Parents across California have filed multiple similar lawsuits arguing that public schools provided low-quality education during distance learning.

One of the most publicized lawsuits filed against Gov. Gavin Newsom in July 2020 argued that the forced school closures and distance learning violated their children’s due process and equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment.

An appeals court sided last year with a lower court that rejected those claims for public school parents and had ruled that the 14th Amendment does not recognize a fundamental right to a public education.

Plaintiffs in the latest lawsuit include five parents who previously sued their school districts over distance learning, using the same attorney.

Three plaintiffs sued San Diego Unified and two others sued La Mesa-Spring Valley in spring 2021 with similar claims. They alleged the districts failed to provide sufficient in-person learning during the 2020-21 school year and that their distance learning programs constituted a subpar education.

About five months after those parents sued, they asked the court to dismiss the cases, San Diego County Superior Court filings show.

— Point Loma-OB Monthly staff contributed to this report.


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