LAUSD hit with another school reopening lawsuit

The Los Angeles Unified School District has been hit with another lawsuit over its school reopening plan, a week after another group of parents sued the district and local teachers union over similar issues.

The latest lawsuit, filed Wednesday, April 7, in Los Angeles County Superior Court on behalf of parents in a grassroots group known as California Students United, seeks to compel the nation’s second-largest district to fully reopen schools — meaning full-time, in-person learning at all elementary and secondary schools — “to the greatest extent possible at the earliest practicable time, not to exceed seven days.”

The plaintiffs — which, besides CSU, includes four parents identified in the complaint only by their initials — also want a judge to bar the district from enforcing a 6-foot distancing policy between classroom desks and to prohibit it from requiring that students be tested weekly for the coronavirus in order to return for in-person learning.

The school district and Superintendent Austin Beutner are named defendants in the lawsuit.

Although United Teachers Los Angeles isn’t being sued, the complaint does criticize the teachers union and raises issues that were also cited in a separate complaint filed last week by the Freedom Foundation. UTLA is a named defendant in that case.

The CSU complaint alleges that UTLA viewed the school closures brought on by the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to try to “extract various policy changes that were not directly related to schools and/or education of LAUSD’s students, or UTLA’s official role as a teachers’ union” during negotiations with the district to advance its own political agenda.

Specifically, the complaint accused the union of making demands such as having the city defund police, provide funds to address housing insecurity, require businesses within the city of Los Angeles to provide 10 additional paid sick days to parents, impose a moratorium on charter schools, impose a state wealth tax, expand a federal Medicare for All program and to provide state financial assistance for undocumented residents.

The complaint accuses the district of “caving” in to the union’s “unreasonable, unlawful, unnecessary, and politically motivated demands.”

“LAUSD and Beutner encouraged UTLA’s political rhetoric and demands by allowing UTLA’s political agenda to infiltrate and distract from negotiations for plans to return to in-person instruction,” the complaint states.

The union did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A spokeswoman for LAUSD said Thursday, April 8, that the district has not been served with the lawsuit and does not comment on pending litigation.

Beutner, when asked about the pending litigation on Wednesday, said reducing the physical distancing protocols below 6 feet is not the issue and noted that districts like New York City and Chicago have more empty desks in the classrooms than students to fill the seats. The challenge for now, he said, is to convince families that campuses are safe to return to.

“First challenge is to make sure families understand this (is) as safe as possible, and to get families vaccinated,” he said. “In due course, we’ll look at the 3-foot, 6-foot rule.”

He was referring to a recent change in guidance by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state that suggests it’s OK to space students’ desks in classrooms 3 feet apart — half of what was previously recommended. LAUSD is locked into a 6-foot distancing protocol due to conditions agreed to in negotiations with UTLA.

As of the hybrid schedule for middle and high schools — which many parents have complained about because students would continue learning online while remaining in their advisory classroom all day instead of receiving in-person instruction — Beutner reiterated the district’s position that it’s too difficult to rejigger master schedules at this time in the school year, and that allowing students to move between classes while trying to maintain stable cohorts to reduce the risk of viral transmission is not feasible.

“We do not believe that’s safe or appropriate at this time in the communities we serve. It might be appropriate in La Canada — much less COVID, much less impact in the community,” he said, referring to another district in the county with lower COVID-19 infection rates. “Come summer, come fall, we expect a different program, but for now, we think that’s the safest approach.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs cited numerous studies suggesting that schools can safely reopen with proper protocols in place, and that campuses are not known to be large breeding grounds for viral transmissions. They also cited reports about the academic and social-emotional harm that students are experiencing as a result of prolonged distance learning.

As for the district’s hybrid learning program, the complaint states that three hours of daily in-person instruction for elementary students “is hardly a ‘full day’ of school.

It alleges that LAUSD is in violation of the state Constitution which states that districts should provide at least six months of schooling each year, and that it is also in violation of Senate Bill 98, which states that districts “may” offer distance learning but “shall offer in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs further argue that the delay in fully reopening schools is a violation of students’ equal protection rights to an education, since other districts in L.A. County have reopened or plan to reopen for in-person instruction to more students, including at the secondary grade levels.

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“There is no reason to believe that secondary school students are any less impacted than elementary school students by school closures,” the complaint states. “If anything, it is becoming apparent that secondary school students are more severely impacted.”

Students and their families continue to suffer “irreparable harm” each day that in-person instruction is not offered, the complaint states.

The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys for the law firm Aannestad Andelin & Corn LLP, which is handling a similar lawsuit in San Diego. In that case, the attorneys convinced a judge to issue a temporary restraining order to bar the state from enforcing its school reopening rules.

CSU is seeking a similar temporary restraining order against LAUSD and the superintendent to compel them to reopen schools in accordance with state and county guidelines.

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