Computers are loaned to students for in-person class where coursework is online.
A student completes classwork on a laptop. Credit: Amir Aziz

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In late November, a coalition of parents, students, and parent advocacy groups, including The Oakland Reach, which is based in Oakland, and the Community Coalition of Los Angeles, filed a lawsuit against the state of California, alleging that education officials, including Superintendent Tony Thurmond and the California Department of Education, did not do enough to help local school districts provide an adequate education during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While it could take months or longer for Alameda County Superior Court Judge Winifred Smith to make a decision in the case, the parent groups and families requested a preliminary injunction in May that would have forced the state to immediately take steps to close the digital divide, ensure that students are receiving adequate live instruction, provide free counseling to students and mental health training to teachers, and create a plan to help districts address learning loss.

“A huge part of our goal is accountability in terms of how the state has not responded to and supported low-income Black and brown families, really ever. But definitely during the pandemic,” said The Oakland Reach’s CEO Lakisha Young in an interview. “We’ve got to bring it higher than just distance learning and talk more about how the state takes accountability and serves our students in any number of conditions.”

During a hearing last week, lawyers for the state argued against the injunction, stating that most districts already completed the 2020-2021 school year and in the fall will return to in-person learning, therefore many of the demands aren’t timely. 

This week, Judge Smith issued a ruling denying the parent groups’ request, writing that “the court is reluctant to address long term issues through the short term of a preliminary injunction.” She also wrote that the state has taken some actions to address concerns of learning loss, including Assembly Bill 86, which gives more funding to school districts to support in-person instruction and provide more academic support to help students rebound from the pandemic. 

“We are encouraged to see the judge in this case denied the motion for a preliminary injunction—this is aligned with the state’s central argument that it would be inappropriate to disrupt California’s ongoing efforts to stop the spread of a deadly disease while providing historic support to K-12 students impacted by COVID-19, especially at this late stage when the school year has ended,” said a statement from California’s Department of Education. “Last year’s temporary authorization for distance learning was a necessary step to protect lives; that statute sunsets at the end of the 2020-2021 school year.” 

Smith granted a separate motion that could help advance the parents’ case: she decided to allow Compton Unified School District, Duarte Unified School District in Los Angeles County, and the California Association of Black School Educators to join the case against the state department of education. In their request to join the lawsuit, the three groups agreed that California failed in its efforts to support distance learning during the pandemic.

The initial 84-page complaint details the experiences of several Oakland and Los Angeles families who struggled to get laptops, internet hotspots, and academic support from their schools to attend the online classes that were set up hurriedly in the spring of 2020 after the pandemic forced campuses to close. The lawsuit alleges that the state department of education’s actions during the pandemic have exacerbated disparities in education for students of color, homeless students, and low-income students.

One Oakland parent named Angela J. in the lawsuit—the complaint doesn’t use parents’ and students’ real names and we also agreed not to name her—said in an interview that her frustrations with the amount of daily instruction time her kids were getting at an Oakland elementary school led her to join the lawsuit. She was concerned about the lack of guidance she received on using the distance learning platforms but has family in other states whose kids had more robust distance learning experiences, and she wondered why that couldn’t be done in California. She even considered moving to Iowa to stay with her father and enroll her kids there. At the start of the pandemic, her twins were in second grade, and completed their third grade year completely in distance learning.

“As of today, June 16, my twins that are 8 years old are not ready for the fourth grade,” she told The Oaklandside. “I know some school systems that were preparing their kids better than Oakland Unified did. It seemed like OUSD dropped the ball.”

In OUSD, the Oakland Undivided campaign aimed to distribute 25,000 laptops and hotspots to all students that they can keep throughout their time in school. Until students received their Oakland Undivided laptop, they were loaned a device from their school. The campaign handed out its 25,000th device in March 2021, a year after schools shut down. Students remained in distance learning until March, when the Oakland Education Association teachers’ union and Oakland Unified School District came to an agreement to provide some in-person instruction for the district’s youngest students. Some pre-K to second graders returned to class for a few days a week on March 30, while third to sixth graders could return on April 19. The district also brought back targeted groups of students in all grades, like students in foster care, those who had not been engaged in distance learning, and English language learners.  

While local school districts were responsible for facilitating distance learning, the parent groups are suing California because the state is constitutionally obligated to provide access to a sound, basic, education, said Jesselyn Friley, an attorney with Public Counsel, one of the law firms representing the families and community groups. 

“What districts have been saying over and over is that they have not had the resources that they need to make sure that every kid has access to a sound, basic education,” Friley said. “It’s well-established by our California Supreme Court that the state has the ultimate authority and ultimate responsibility here.”

The parent groups are asking a state judge to order the department of education and superintendent to make sure that all students have computers and internet access, that schools provide mental health support and tech training to students and families, and that school districts consult with families about future decisions regarding remote learning, transitioning back to in-person learning, and how to address learning loss. 

In their lawsuit, The Oakland REACH and Community Coalition described how they formed learning hubs to provide some students with help through the spring, summer, and fall. In Spring 2020, after Oakland schools shut down because of the pandemic, The Oakland Reach created its Citywide Virtual Hub, which provided instruction, social and emotional programming, and tech support. The hub has continued operating through the 2020-2021 school year and is offering summer school now.

Lakisha Young, Co-founder and Executive Director of Oakland Reach, a parent-run education advocacy group for underserved communities in Oakland. Credit: Pete Rosos

The Oakland Reach and Community Coalition are also asking the court to make a ruling that will help them expand their learning hub models across other parts of California, with support from the state. In January, The Oakland Reach and Oakland Unified School District received a $900,000 grant from the Center on Reinventing Public Education and TNTP, an organization that works with school districts to train teachers.  

“A huge part of why we joined the lawsuit—and it’s similar to Community Coalition—is both organizations built our own solutions to serve our communities,” said Young. “Through that responsiveness we have seen some impressive results in terms of academic achievement and parent involvement. These innovations to serve our families in the long haul have been created and we want those efforts to be replicated to the benefit of other communities across California.”

A trial date has not been set yet, but in her other rulings, Smith advised that the court may be aiming for a trial in May 2022, so that any relief that is ordered can be put in place by the start of the 2022-2023 school year. 

Ashley McBride reports on education equity for The Oaklandside. She covered the 2019 Oakland Unified School District teachers’ strike as a breaking news reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. More recently, she was an education reporter for the San Antonio Express-News where she covered several local school districts, charter schools, and the community college system. McBride earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, has held positions at the Palm Beach Post and the Poynter Institute, and is a recent Hearst Journalism Fellow.