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COVID Schools: Parents, Education Advocates Sue California Over Remote Learning

OAKLAND (CBS SF) -- A coalition of education advocates and families sued the State of California Monday over its failure to "meet its Constitutional obligation to ensure basic educational equality," according to the attorneys who filed the lawsuit.

The public interest law firm Public Counsel, representing seven families, Community Coalition and Oakland REACH, filed their suit in Superior Court in the hopes of urging the state to better serve its most vulnerable students.

"These families and organizations are coming forward to hold the state accountable for educating children in their communities," Jesselyn Friley, Staff Attorney at Public Counsel's Opportunity Under Law Project, said. "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."

Nine months after California locked down to slow the spread of COVID-19, children are still learning from home. The requirement for remote learning focused a spotlight on the digital divide between wealthy area and under-served communities, as many students didn't have access to the devices and Internet connectivity needed for online schooling.

The lawsuit says that the pandemic also highlighted other issues, such as the need for mental health support and the lack of resources for teachers. Both Oakland REACH and Community Coalition created programs to help their communities -- Community Coalition provided summer schooling for LAUSD students, while Oakland REACH created a website to help parents with their children's online learning called the CityWide Virtual Hub.

"The impact of the pandemic on California's most vulnerable students has been to deny them in far too many instances even the semblance of an education, dramatically widening an already indefensible opportunity gap with their more privileged counterparts," Mark Rosenbaum, Director of Public Counsel's Opportunity Under Law Project, said. "Remote learning may not be preventable but the remoteness of California officials to the desperate educational needs of its children is."

The lawsuit also highlights the educational issues already facing communities of color before the pandemic. According to Public Counsel, as of January 2020, in the Oakland Unified School District, only 18.6% of Black students and 23.8% of Latinx students were reading at grade level. In the same district, where less than 1 in 5 Black children can read, 72.5%, of white children were meeting or exceeding standards.

To better illustrate these issues, use the example of a plaintiff named Bella R, a student at a LAUSD magnet school. She's only received between 30-40 minutes of online instruction twice a week since the lockdown began and she's fallen behind -- her mother had to reach out to an outside organization called Speak UP to provide Bella supplemental instruction.

"Due to the State's insufficient attention to the actual circumstances of remote learning under the COVID-19 pandemic, disadvantaged students are being deprived of their fundamental right to a free and equal education guaranteed by the California Constitution," Shaelyn Dawson of global law firm Morrison & Foerster, who is working with Public Counsel on the lawsuit. "It is time to hold the State accountable for its refusal to fulfill its constitutional obligation."

Read the lawsuit here.

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