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Calif. Judge Says Students Harmed by Remote Learning Can Go to Trial

A group of low-income students of color is suing California education officials for not providing the means to learn from home. They're not seeking damages but court-ordered measures to close the statewide learning gap.

Closeup of a bronze statue of Lady Justice holding a set of scales.
(TNS) — A judge says a group of low-income students of color in California can go to trial in a lawsuit accusing state education officials of failing to provide the neediest students with adequate equipment and services to learn remotely during the eight months in 2020 when schoolhouse doors were closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Studies that the state does not dispute show that "educational inequality increased from 2019 to 2022 and achievement gaps widened" between public school students of different races and income levels in California, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Brad Seligman said Tuesday.

And during the pandemic, he said, the evidence shows that the state "implemented a remote learning policy that failed to provide all students with computers and Internet access," and that state officials knew that non-white and low-income students were being harmed worse than others. Seligman said a trial would determine whether the state had violated discrimination laws and a state constitutional guarantee of educational equality.

The suit does not seek damages, but instead court-ordered measures to close the statewide learning gap, such as tutoring, literacy coaches and accountability requirements for the state.

California has about 6 million students in public schools. In the eight months after Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered schools closed, Seligman said, the state distributed more than 45,000 laptops and more than 73,000 computing devices to students, but between 800,000 and 1 million students still lacked adequate access, or any access at all, to online classes.

While state officials contend the impact was similar among all categories of students, researchers for the plaintiffs said poor and non-white students were harmed disproportionately, and a trial is needed to resolve the factual dispute, Seligman said.

The ruling is a "resounding victory" for the students and shows they have a strong case that the state was responsible for "inadequate and inequitable distribution of remote learning resources during pandemic school closures," said Alex Comisar, spokesperson for Public Counsel, a nonprofit law firm representing the student plaintiffs.

The state Department of Education declined to comment.

The suit described conditions for 14 non-white, low-income students in Oakland and Los Angeles. Two of them, twin sisters living with their financially strapped parents in Oakland, were attending classes until the lockdown in March 2020, when schooling virtually stopped — the teacher held remote classes only twice in the rest of the school year. The teacher told their mother, the suit said, that some students could not connect remotely, so classes had to be canceled for everyone.

One girl received a computer from the school that stopped working after a month and took another month to replace, the suit said. It said that when school reopened in the fall, the school day typically started with a 45-minute video, added a 30-minute group session later in the day, and otherwise left the students to learn on their own.

During the months of remote learning, "wealthier students more often had access to private spaces conducive to learning, while lower-income students of color typically shared their 'classroom' with other family members," lawyers for the students said in a filing opposing dismissal of the suit.

Lawyers for the state countered that California "has worked aggressively to bridge the existing digital divide and provide technology and connectivity to the students."

But Seligman noted that one of the plaintiffs' studies found a "dramatic" decline in enrollment during the shutdown, particularly among low-income students. "While there is evidence that (state officials) took some steps to address pandemic-related impacts, the question is whether those steps were reasonable," which must be decided in a trial, the judge wrote.

He said the students were also entitled to a trial on their claim that they were denied their right, under the California Constitution, to "basic educational equality."

Chronicle staff writer Nanette Asimov contributed to this article.

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