A civil liberties advocacy group filed suit Tuesday to challenge Gov. Gavin Newsom's executive order barring schools in Riverside County and elsewhere from bringing students into classrooms this fall because of coronavirus infections.
The Center for American Liberty, which has offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco, brought the complaint against Newsom, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, state Public Health Officer Sonia Angell and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond in Los Angeles federal court, assailing new rules to compel many of the state's districts to teach remotely when fall terms begin next month.
"The governor's decision to shut down educational facilities in more than 30 counties denies children in these counties their right to a basic education,'' CAL CEO and lead attorney Harmeet Dhillon said.
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"California taxes and spends $100 billion of state and federal dollars annually on education. This year, there will be little to show for that massive spending, other than increased depression, suicide risk, stunted learning and the shattered dreams of millions of California children," she said. "California families -- particularly the most vulnerable -- will suffer economic loss, heartbreaking personal choices and a state that utterly fails its obligations, all based on politics and not science."
The plaintiffs allege that the restrictions are an affront to the constitutional guarantee to a basic education, federal due process and equal protection guarantees, and the established right to an effective education for disabled children.
The CAL suit alleges that the use of online learning in the recent past was a "failed experiment" in which students were "unable to log on and access online learning -- or if they could, experienced at best ineffective and at worst nonexistent instruction."
According to the Riverside County Office of Education, there are 23 school districts countywide, and during the 2019-20 academic year, which was effectively stopped in March when county Public Health Officer Dr. Cameron Kaiser ordered schools closed because of COVID-19, roughly 412,000 youths were enrolled.
Jesse Melgar, spokesperson for Newsom's office, told City News Service that the governor's decision was the result of consideration for the safety of students and teachers. He said the state would address CAL's challenge in court.
"As the governor has explained, science drives the state's decisions in this pandemic," Melgar said. "We will defend this challenge to the governor's exercise of emergency authority in this crisis as we have all others, and we note that every federal court to rule on such a challenge to date has ruled that the exercise of authority is lawful."
According to the lawsuit, the governor's "one-size-fits-all" approach preempts the ability of school boards and other governing bodies to decide what works best in preparing to re-start classes this fall, including limitations on classroom sizes, staggered classes, enhanced sanitation practices and use of facial coverings.
The plaintiffs cite U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data indicating that children between the ages of 5 and 17 are hospitalized for coronavirus at a rate of 5.3 per 100,000, compared to a national average of 113.6 per 100,000, raising questions about the necessity of public health-based school closures.
"Wealthy parents can still hire tutors and educate their children at home, while most will be forced to choose between their jobs and their children,'' Dhillon said. ``Special needs children are left out in the cold altogether, despite federal and state mandates. California cannot ignore its legal duties and harm these children."
Newsom said campuses will only be allowed to open in counties that have been off the state's monitoring list for at least 14 days. Counties are placed on the monitoring list based on a variety of factors, including coronavirus positivity, testing and hospitalization rates. Thirty-two California counties are on the list.
Schools that are allowed to reopen will have to meet a series of other requirements, including mandatory masks for staff and students in third-grade and above, physical distancing mandates and regular on-campus coronavirus testing.
"Learning in the state of California is simply non-negotiable," Newsom said Friday. "Schools must ... provide meaningful instruction during this pandemic whether they are physically open or not."
Under state guidelines, in schools that are allowed to open, students and staff in individual classrooms will be sent home when a single case in the class is confirmed. The entire school will be closed if cases are confirmed in multiple classrooms, or if more than 5% of the school tests positive for the virus. An entire district will be shuttered if 25% of its schools are closed in a 14-day period.