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California parents sue Gov. Gavin Newsom to open schools for in-person learning

The governor announced last month that a majority of schools in the state would not meet the criteria to reopen for in-person learning.
Image: An empty schoolyard in San Francisco
An empty schoolyard in San Francisco on March 18, 2020.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Parents who are suing the governor of California to allow schools to open for in-person learning said Thursday that their children are suffering academically and psychologically.

"The negative effects of keeping schools closed far outweigh the risks of opening them," said Jesse Petrilla, a father of two boys and a plaintiff in the suit filed on July 29.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last month that all schools — both public and private — in counties that are on the list for rising coronavirus cases could not resume in-person classes when school restarts, and would have to meet strict criteria before reopening.

At the time, 32 of the state's 58 counties were on the list, including the majority of California's population and its biggest cities — Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, according to NBC Bay Area.

The state serves 6.7 million students and many of the state's 1,000 school districts are set to start back up in mid-to-late August.

Petrilla said when schools closed in March, he noticed a "significant decline in engagement and motivation and enthusiasm for learning" in his sons. He said he and his wife also "worry about long-term effects, psychologically, if the schools remain closed."

He said the "affluent" and "working class" are affected differently by mandated remote learning, pointing out that many struggling families rely on food provided to their kids at school.

"Parents should have a choice. Teachers should have a choice. Districts should have a choice," Petrilla said. "The governor is trying to take away that freedom with this order."

Marianne Bema, a mother of three, originally from Cameroon, Africa, said she does not have the resources to hire a tutor. "I'm not a professional teacher," she said. "My boys have been struggling."

Christine Ruiz, who has two sons with autism and a third son, said their "lives stopped" in March. "They've got no learning whatsoever," she said.

Attorney Harmeet Dhillon, the founder and CEO of The Center For American Liberty who is representing the parents, said they represent the "numerous variations" of the needs of parents and their children.

The governor's plan for reopening schools should not be a "one size fits all template," she said. There will be schools or districts that "will have the right to say it's just not possible," but that should be their choice, she said.

Matthew Brach, who has two teenagers in school and is on the board of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District, said that his district had been planning all summer to get safety measures in place. A majority of parents in the district chose to participate in hybrid learning and, in a "testament to teachers and their courage," a majority had opted to come back.

When asked about a Georgia school district in which more than 800 of its students and staff were told to quarantine after possible exposure to the coronavirus just one week after reopening, Dhillon said "anecdotes are not the singular data."

She said she wasn't worried about a similar situation in California schools if "proper precautions are taken."

The week Newsom announced his plan to mostly delay opening schools for in-person learning, California reported its second-highest one-day total in infection rates and deaths since the start of the pandemic. The following week, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in California surpassed New York's total for the most in the United States.

Several large school districts in the state, including in Los Angeles and San Diego, had already said the new school year would begin virtually.

As of Aug. 11, more than 10,000 people in the state have died from coronavirus, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Newsom's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday regarding the parents' suit, which is set to be heard before a judge on Monday.

When he rolled out the school opening plan, Newsom noted that the state budget allotted more than $5 billion to help with remote learning, and schools would be required to introduce “robust distance learning programs."

“Learning is non-negotiable,” Newsom said at the time. “The virus will be with us for a year or more, and school districts must provide meaningful instruction in the midst of this pandemic. In California, health data will determine when a school can be physically open — and when it must close — but learning should never stop. Students, staff, and parents all prefer in-classroom instruction, but only if it can be done safely.”

The California Teachers Association, which represents 310,000 members, agrees with Newsom.

"The health and safety of all students and staff must be the first priority and guiding principle in opening public schools and colleges for the 2020-21 school year," the association said. "When we physically return to school campuses, it needs to be planned and deliberate with safety and public health at the forefront of all decision-making and with the involvement of educators and parents."