Lawsuit Claims Remote Learning is Driving Inequities for California K-12 Students

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The suit, brought by families and advocacy groups, argues that kids have lacked technology and faced other problems as the coronavirus keeps them from classrooms.

California is failing to meet obligations under the state constitution to provide children with equal educational opportunities as many K-12 schools continue remote learning due to the coronavirus pandemic, a lawsuit filed on Monday claims.

Seven families of school-age children and two advocacy groups—Community Coalition and The Oakland REACH—filed the suit against California education authorities, alleging the state has not done enough to provide students with resources, including technology like computer devices and internet hotspots, so that all kids have an ample opportunity to learn away from classrooms.

The lawsuit charges that the state’s shortcomings with remote learning have worsened existing inequalities in California’s education system, further disadvantaging already underserved students who are Black, Latino, poor, homeless, or speak English as a second language.

“For many families, a single room is now a multi-grade classroom as well as a workplace for several adults. For students without homes, school is now wherever they can find an internet connection,” states the lawsuit, filed in an Alameda County state superior court.

“The change in the delivery of education left many already-underserved students functionally unable to attend school,” it adds. “The State continues to refuse to step up and meet its constitutional obligation to ensure basic educational equality or indeed any education at all.”

In addition to outlining the difficulties some students have had with computer and internet access, the lawsuit flags other problems that it says kids, parents and teachers are facing. 

It argues, for instance, that the state hasn’t ensured that parents and students have sufficient information and support to know how to use virtual learning platforms. And it calls into question whether teachers or parents are getting the training needed to make remote instruction roughly equivalent to in-person classes.

“Parents and grandparents have had to become tutors, counselors, childminders, and computer technicians, and they have had to find a way to pay for what are now basic school supplies—laptop/tablets, paper, printing, and internet access,” the court complaint says.

The lawsuit also raises concerns that students aren’t getting enough instructional time and that children with extra needs aren’t getting adequate academic and mental health support.

Jesselyn Friley, an attorney with Public Counsel, a nonprofit law firm providing representation to the plaintiffs in the suit, said the families and organizations were “coming forward to hold the State accountable for educating children in their communities.”

“The education children were offered before the pandemic did not meet the standards set by California’s constitution, and what they’ve received since March 2020 is education in name only," Friley added.

The suit names California’s board of education, the department of education and the state's superintendent of public instruction as defendants.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs raised similar issues as those identified in the lawsuit in a September letter sent to state education officials. 

In a reply to that letter, lawyers for the state noted that California’s 2020-21 budget maintained K-12 funding levels and added another $5.3 billion to help schools cover the cost of adapting to the virus, including computer technology for students.

They also highlighted state requirements for local education agencies to come up with “learning continuity and attendance” plans for the current school year. And they pointed to state efforts to help students gain access to computers and other learning technology. 

Additionally, the state lawyers argued that some issues the plaintiffs’ attorneys pointed to in their letter reflected the early days of the virus crisis and not current remote offerings in schools. 

“We respectfully disagree with your assertion—which is notably unsupported by evidence of current circumstances in particular schools,” the state lawyers wrote, “that our clients, and the state more generally, have failed to take appropriate steps to ensure basic equality of educational opportunity, as required by the California Constitution.”

The lawsuit pushes back on the state’s response. For example, it characterizes the state’s oversight and engagement around the learning and attendance plans as inadequate and says a “closing the digital divide task force” has been unable to keep up with the “staggering need” for computer devices and hotspots among school kids who are learning remotely.

Bill Lucia is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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