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Lawsuit Seeks To Force LAUSD To Reopen Campuses For Small Groups Of At-Risk Students

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LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner speaks to staff in the counseling office at San Fernando Middle School in August. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC/LAist)
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Two advocacy organizations have asked the California Supreme Court to force the Los Angeles Unified School District to resume in-person instruction for small groups of the highest-need students.

The lawsuit, filed Friday morning, comes one day after LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner imposed a harder campus lockdown: he suspended the district’s already-limited tutoring, small group and childcare programs until at least Jan. 10.

WHAT THE LAWSUIT SAYS

With coronavirus cases surging in recent weeks, LAUSD officials argue inviting students to campuses is “no longer safe and appropriate.”

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But the Alliance for Children’s Rights and the Learning Rights Law Center argue LAUSD’s shutdown violates Senate Bill 98, the legislation passed last June that established some ground rules for distance learning during COVID-19.

Among SB 98’s rules: public schools should make plans “to offer classroom-based instruction whenever possible.”

“LAUSD is not the arbiter of when [classroom-based instruction] is ‘possible,’” said Alex Romain, a partner at the firm Milbank LLP, which is handling the case. “Those judgment calls are left to public health officials … [who] have actually spoken on this particular point, and indicated that, since the middle of September, it has in fact been possible.”

Romain took the lawsuit directly to California’s highest court in hopes justices would take swift action. He hoped the court would order LAUSD not only to resume in-person instruction, but also to arrange and pay for immediate services for students with disabilities through private providers if necessary.

“There are real students who are being harmed in a profound way,” he said.

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When we reached out earlier this afternoon, an LAUSD spokesperson said that the district had not yet been served with the lawsuit, "and we do not comment on pending litigation."

THE BACKGROUND

  • In August, state public health officials urged schools to invite their most at-risk studentsparticularly students in special education, English learners, foster youth and homeless children — to return to campuses for instruction in small groups. (These are groups that have fared terribly in distance learning.)
  • In September, the L.A. County Department of Public Health gave schools the go-ahead to begin this small group instruction, so long as the groups did not exceed 25% of a school’s overall student body.
  • While Southern California is now under new stay-at-home orders, those mandates allow schools to continue offering some limited in-person instruction. But Beutner ordered LAUSD to suspend in-person services anyway, pointing out public health officials have called the recent surge in cases “dangerous."

WHY LAUSD?

Before the new lockdown, LAUSD had invited less than 1% of its students to participate in these targeted small groups — some 4,000 students.

But LAUSD officials are not alone in backing away from these small groups as COVID-19 cases mount.

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Long Beach Unified — L.A. County’s second-largest district — has been offering even more-limited in-person services this semester than LAUSD has. According to its teachers union, Long Beach Unified decided to delay convening small groups of the most at-risk students until at least after winter break.

After the state announced its new stay-at-home order, Santa Ana Unified also cancelled all small group instruction “out of an abundance of caution.”

Romain said the lawsuit targeted LAUSD because that is where the organizations he represents, and the children they serve, are located.