A group of parents is suing the Los Angeles Unified School District, alleging its distance learning plan fails to adequately educate every child and that such violation of students’ Constitutional right to a free and appropriate education – particularly for low-income Black and Latino students, English learners and students with disabilities – amounts to race and wealth discrimination.
The district’s ability to meet the needs of its most vulnerable students was already sub-par prior to the coronavirus pandemic, but the quality of its programs and ability to engage with these students have worsened since schools closed in mid-March, the plaintiffs allege in their class-action suit, filed Thursday, Sept. 24, in LA Superior Court.
A large part of the problem was that families weren’t provided laptops or other devices, or did not have reliable internet, for their children to learn online when schools abruptly closed, parents said. The issue appeared to be widespread during the spring and has remained a problem in the fall, parents say.
There were also frequent complaints that there wasn’t enough live instructional time with teachers and a lack of communication with parents about their children’s progress or how families could support their students’ education.
In August, the district reached an agreement with the teachers union, requiring teachers to provide daily live instruction and for there to be regular communication with parents. The agreement also stipulated that permanent district employees represented by the union would not be evaluated this school year.
Despite the changes, the district still is not meeting students’ needs, an attorney for the plaintiffs said during a press conference outside the courthouse after the lawsuit was filed. For example, she said, while the district has increased the amount of time teachers must work per day to six hours, that is still two less than the requirement before distance learning began.
“That is just one of the glaring deficiencies in the current LAUSD plan that fails to rectify the deficiencies from the spring and the deficiencies that have always existed for our vulnerable populations, including Black and Latino students,” said attorney Sierra Elizabeth, who is representing the nine plaintiffs through an effort organized by the advocacy groups Innovate Public Schools and Parent Revolution.
A spokesperson for LAUSD said Thursday afternoon the district had not yet been served with the lawsuit, which names the district and Superintendent Austin Beutner as defendants.
However, the district issued a statement that societal challenges, including the impact of COVID-19, oftentimes present themselves in schools.
“School districts like Los Angeles Unified have to balance the sometimes conflicting priorities of the learning needs of students and the health and safety of all in the school community. Since school closed in March, LA Unified has been working to bridge the digital divide ensuring all students have devices and access to the internet. It has also sought innovative ways to engage students online. Los Angeles Unified will continue to provide the best possible education to all students,” reads the statement.
Since the fall semester began, the percentage of students connecting to school has steadily increased, from 90.4% in mid-August to 98.5% by mid-September, the superintendent said in his latest weekly update to the community. A district spokeswoman said at the time that “connection” was defined as a student who logs in at least once to a classroom-related activity.
But many parents remain concerned by the level of student engagement.
After the district turned to distance learning, about 40% of middle and high school students were not considered active on Schoology, the district’s online learning platform, on a daily basis, according to a district report, which tracked a 45-day period during the spring semester. This was particularly true of Black and Latino students, homeless students and those in foster care, English learners and students with disabilities. On average, Black and Latino students were active on Schoology about 60% of the time — rates that were 10% to 20% lower than their other peers.
Plaintiff Vicenta Martinez said through a translator that her daughter, who was in the first grade last spring, received a laptop from the district at the time but the device would not connect to the internet, and the district never followed up to see if there were issues. She described how she and her husband turned to free educational materials on YouTube and relied on an old textbook from 13 years ago, when their son was in the first grade, to teach their daughter multiplication since they were unable to access actual school assignments from her teacher.
Martinez said her daughter continues to be frustrated by distance learning this year.
“Erin used to be excited about school. Now she thinks she will learn nothing if she shows up to classes,” Martinez said. “I want her to go to college and to become everything she’s wanted to – to become an astronaut. Now she thinks she cannot achieve her dream.”
In addition to the lawsuit, attorneys for the plaintiffs have filed a preliminary injunction for immediate relief by asking the court to order the district to stop adhering to its August agreement with UTLA while the case is being considered.
Specifically, they’ve asked that the district be ordered to provide daily instructional minutes in line with what other comparable districts are offering, claiming that in many instances, LAUSD — the state’s largest district — offers fewer instructional hours than the next four largest districts in California.
In addition, the attorneys are demanding that the district resume student assessments to identify students in need of additional supports, provide remediation to address learning loss, require eight-hour teacher workdays and to provide increased mandatory training for teachers.
The preliminary injunction also seeks a court order for the district to ensure that all students have the necessary devices and internet service to connect online, provide appropriate services to special education students and English learners, and to identify and re-integrate “the thousands of LAUSD students who have stopped participating in education during distance learning.”