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Parents sue San Diego Unified School District over lack of in-person instruction

Parents and students from the La Jolla Cluster schools protest ongoing school closures Feb. 18 near Bird Rock Elementary.
Parents and students from the five La Jolla Cluster schools protest ongoing school closures Feb. 18 near Bird Rock Elementary School.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Lawyer says the district has allowed large disparities in the quality of education and access to schooling.

Three parents filed a class-action lawsuit against the San Diego Unified School District this week alleging that the state’s second-largest school district has failed to provide sufficient in-person learning and sufficient access to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lawsuit references a part of Senate Bill 98, which was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in June, that says school districts and charter schools “shall offer in-person instruction, and may offer distance learning.” SB 98 says public schools can offer distance learning if they have been ordered by a state or local public health officer, or for students whose health would be at risk by in-person instruction.

The lawsuit argues that San Diego Unified — which has provided limited in-person services to a small percentage of its students while its schools remained closed to general in-person instruction — violated SB 98 because it has not offered in-person learning for the vast majority of its students.

“There’s an incredible feeling of lack of support from a governmental organization that we look to to help our kids and to partner with us in helping our children to get an education,” Marc Levine, the attorney representing the three plaintiffs, said in an interview.

Levine said San Diego Unified has allowed large disparities in the quality of education and access to schooling.

For example, schools in the district have different amounts of distance learning class time per day, Levine said. More affluent families have been able to move their children to private schools that are open for in-person instruction or have paid for in-person opportunities for their children, such as summer camps. Meanwhile, other families can’t afford in-person options for their children, Levine said.

“The city’s becoming a city of haves and have-nots in terms of education, and it’s disgusting,” Levine said.

The lawsuit is an effort led by Reopen SDUSD, a parent group that has been demanding that the district reopen since last fall and whose members have become some of the district’s loudest critics. Reopen SDUSD’s co-founder, Gina Smith, a parent at Kumeyaay Elementary School, is one of the plaintiffs.

The other plaintiffs are Susan Calles and Edward Ewing.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages and attorney fees.

San Diego Unified spokeswoman Maureen Magee said the district does not comment on pending litigation.

District officials announced last month that they plan to reopen schools for hybrid instruction for all grade levels during the week of April 12, a date that is contingent on teachers having the opportunity to get fully vaccinated in time and on San Diego County exiting the most-restrictive purple tier of the state’s coronavirus risk framework, which could happen as soon as next week. Hybrid instruction means students can attend school in person for part of the day or the week.

But Levine said he thinks the district’s reopening plan is insufficient and “very tentative.” The district has not yet announced exactly what hybrid learning will look like or how much time students will spend in school.

In addition to the school district, parents sued San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten, the California Department of Education and state Superintendent Tony Thurmond. The Department of Education could not immediately be reached for comment.

Last month a group of North County public school parents sued Newsom and other state leaders, saying the state’s rules are unfairly preventing their districts from bringing students back for in-person learning and that their children are suffering because of it. ◆