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Less distancing, no COVID tests: LAUSD parents seek court order to force wider reopening

L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner gets a COVID-19 vaccination.
L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner receives a COVID-19 vaccination in March. He and the district are being sued for not opening campuses sooner and more fully.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

A group of parents — who say their children have been illegally shortchanged by Los Angeles Unified School District’s return-to-school plan — is seeking a court order to force the district to reopen “to the greatest extent possible” within seven days.

The lawsuit, filed late Wednesday, asks the court to prohibit L.A. Unified from using a six-foot distancing standard in classrooms, while also seeking to bar the district from requiring students to take regular coronavirus tests as a condition for returning to campus.

The district’s reopening plan, which begins to unfold next week, offers a half-time, on-campus schedule for elementary students and supervised online instruction on campus for middle and high school students, a format that the lawsuit characterizes as harmful and legally inadequate.

“There is no reason Plaintiffs’ children should have to suffer through shorter school days with limited instructional hours and/or two- or three-day-per-week on campus distance learning models while other similarly situated students throughout California — and even in Los Angeles County — enjoy a full schedule of in-person learning five days per week,” states the complaint. “LAUSD schoolchildren and their families are suffering irreparable harm.”

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The plaintiffs are four parents who, in the court filing, described how their children of various ages have become academically and socially disengaged, suffering poor grades and psychological trauma as a result of campuses being closed for more than a year during the pandemic.

The complaint includes the narrative of one parent, identified by the initials D.R., whose younger son used to be happy and make good grades. But with campuses closed, the boy “has difficulty connecting with other students that he only sees through Zoom and gets angry, lashes out, acts disrespectfully, and has no motivation to do anything other than play video games. He has gained weight, is lonely, and has expressed suicidal thoughts to both of his parents.”

Under health guidelines, L.A. Unified could have opened for elementary schoolchildren as soon as Feb. 16 — and sooner for the early grades if it had applied for county waivers. Middle and high school students could have returned to school as early as March 15.

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The parents, who have joined together under the name California Students United, said on their website that they could no longer wait and rely on school officials for a return to a normal schedule in the nation’s second-largest school system.

“The LAUSD Board and Supt. [Austin] Beutner has no valid legal or health and safety basis to justify their reopening plan,” the group stated in a release Thursday.

The parent group has brought in the same attorneys who sued successfully in San Diego County, preventing the state from enforcing guidelines requiring at least four feet of distance between desks. A three-foot separation is the current recommended standard set by the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Currently the state “strongly recommends” at least three feet for students in classrooms, consistent with CDC guidance, said Rodger Butler, a spokesman for the California Health and Human Services Agency.

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L.A. County health officials, who formerly required a six-foot separation, have aligned with state and federal guidance. But they also have been allowing local district leaders to make their own decisions on whether to go beyond three feet, as does the state.

The difference between three and six feet is crucial. A three-foot distance essentially allows for the return of a typical full class within the typical California classroom. A six-foot separation, in contrast, logistically requires students to attend class in-person on a staggered, part-time basis. The staggered attendance formats are called hybrid plans because they include both in-person instruction and remote learning during school hours from home.

Separately, the suit contends that mandatory coronavirus tests for students should be halted — on the grounds that students should not barred from higher quality schooling on campus simply because their families don’t submit to a test that health authorities are not mandating.

While the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, is not a defendant, the complaint accuses the school system of “adopting UTLA’s positions” and “caving to UTLA’s unreasonable, unlawful, unnecessary and politically motivated demands.”

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Beutner, who is named as a defendant along with L.A. Unified, has not attributed the six-foot standard to a teachers union demand.

The district and teachers union declined to comment.

Beutner has defended the district’s safety measures on their merits and also as necessary to building parent and employee confidence.

“Our challenge is convincing families that schools are safe, not finding ways to stuff more kids into classrooms,” Beutner said recently.

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The union successfully advocated for COVID-19 vaccines for teachers — along with enough time to achieve maximum vaccine immunity before returning to campus — which pushed back the potential reopening of elementary campuses by at least six weeks.

Union President Cecily Myart-Cruz has frequently acknowledged family hardships and has also said that the situation would have been worse if students had returned to campus prematurely and contributed to the spread of disease and death in their own families and in low-income Latino and Black communities, which have suffered disproportionately.

Interviews and survey results suggest that there wide ranging opinions on reopening across the vast school system. An ongoing district survey shows that parents in communities hardest hit by COVID-19 have decided to keep their children home in greater numbers than parents in neighborhoods that have suffered less.

Similar to the new litigation in L.A., the San Diego County lawsuit, which was pursued by a group called Parent Assn., asserted that local school systems had been violating Senate Bill 98, which protects education funding while also specifying that school districts “shall offer in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible.”

In the San Diego suit, Superior Court Judge Cynthia A. Freeland issued a temporary restraining order March 15 that nullified portions of the state’s guidance, including the four-foot separation, saying that the safety framework was inappropriately “selective in its applicability, vague in its terms, and arbitrary in its prescriptions.”

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A central question in the L.A. lawsuit will be whether a different judge in a separate case would be willing to apply Freeland’s legal analysis to L.A. Unified. Another issue is whether the L.A. litigation could move swiftly enough to affect the current school year, which ends June 11.

East Los Angeles parent Eloisa Galindo said she respects the right of parents to make their own choices about returning, but said those filing suit don’t represent her. She’s keeping her sixth-grader home from Marianna Avenue Elementary School. Ditto for her 11th-grader at Eagle Rock Junior/Senior High School until more people, including children, are vaccinated and until she sees more evidence of necessary safety upgrades at campuses.

Her brother and sister came down with COVID-19, and a friend buried her husband four days ago, said Galindo, who is active in the advocacy group Reclaim Our Schools, which has close ties with the teachers union.

Parent Maggie Pulley, who has a sixth-grader at the Girls Academic Leadership Academy in Mid-Wilshire, is dissatisfied with the district’s hybrid plan, but “I don’t think a lawsuit to push for reopening this school year, with so few weeks left, is worth the effort.”

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“My main focus is getting kids back to school in the fall full time,” she added. “I would also love to see engaging summer school programming that includes both the social and academic aspects that have been missed for over a year.”

Under the district’s hybrid plan rollout, 61 elementary school campuses and 11 early education centers will reopen the week of April 12. Other elementary schools will follow the week of April 19, with middle and high schools the week after that. L.A. Unified has about 1,400 schools and 465,000 students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade.

The school system also is facing legal challenges to its instructional plans on other fronts.

In a complaint filed last week, four parents areseeking damages against the district, the teachers union and two of its leaders over not reopening campuses sooner. The litigation was filed with support from the Olympia, Wash.-based Freedom Foundation, a group that is critical of teachers unions and works to persuade members to opt out of paying union dues.

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Separately, another group of parents sued in September over the quality of the district’s remote learning, asserting in part that students haven’t been receiving enough live instruction online.


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