Parents Sue LA Unified as Students Struggle With Distance Learning

Los Angeles resident and parent Vicenta Martinez speaks at a press conference announcing a lawsuit claiming the LA Unified School District is deepening education inequities by providing inadequate learning time for students. (Martin Macias Jr. / Courthouse News photo)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Parents sued the Los Angeles Unified School District on Thursday claiming the district’s at-home learning plan during the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed students, especially those of color and children with disabilities, further behind in their education.

Schools across the Golden State shut their doors in March after Governor Gavin Newsom said the state’s more than 6 million students would take part in classes remotely due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

Officials at LAUSD, the nation’s second largest school district, rolled out a virtual learning program for its more than 700,000 students and implemented a free food and computer giveaway program to support its students from low-income families.

But parents say LAUSD is widening already large gaps in student achievement by failing to ensure its virtual learning plan supports its most vulnerable students, particularly those from low-income families, homeless children or are English learners.

The parents’ 44-page lawsuit, filed Thursday in LA Superior Court, claims LAUSD has neglected to engage students who’ve fallen behind in their learning and has failed to mandate instructor assessments of students’ performance during the pandemic.

“The LAUSD’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has denied plaintiffs’ children the basic educational equality guaranteed to them by the California Constitution,” the parents say in their lawsuit.

The daughter of plaintiff Akela Wroten Jr. struggles with reading and has found little support from her second-grade teacher in helping advance her skills, according to the lawsuit.

“She was behind before the pandemic started, fell further behind during spring remote learning, and now struggles to complete assignments due to her poor first grade education and limited ability to read,” Wroten says in the complaint.

An LA Unified spokesperson said the district hasn’t been served with the lawsuit but that it will continue to provide the best education possible under the circumstances.

“Many of the challenges society faces present themselves in schools including the impact of Covid-19. 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,” the spokesperson said. 

At a press conference Thursday outside the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown LA, parents held signs demanding LAUSD provide an equitable education for their children. 

Keshara Shaw, parent of a sixth grader at LAUSD and lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, told reporters she’s worried her son is falling too far behind in the current learning paradigm.

“Even in a global pandemic, it’s our students’ right to receive an education,” said Shaw, whose son attends Alexander Fleming Middle School.

Plaintiff Judith Larson said her daughter’s teacher frequently tells students they can log off early from class once marked “present” and after turning in any assignments. 

“My daughter was an honor student, but right now she’s unprepared to go to the next grade,” said Larson, whose daughter attends South Gate Middle School.

Parents want LAUSD to offer more instruction time to students, provide more resources to families and engage with students that have disconnected from their classes.

The district should also focus effort to re-engage Black and Latino students, who according to LAUSD data were 20% less likely to take part in virtual learning, the parents say.

Sierra Elizabeth, an attorney with the firm Kirkland & Ellis, told reporters LAUSD can make the changes demanded by parents without having to go to the bargaining table with the teachers union. 

A spokesperson for United Teachers Los Angeles, the labor union representing LAUSD educators, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

The driving force behind the complaint is Worth More LA, a group formed by education advocacy organizations Parent Revolution and Innovate Public Schools. 

This past May, LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said the district won’t reopen classrooms until California had widespread testing, contact tracing and low transmission rates.

The district is currently testing thousands of its staff members and their children who have returned in small groups to classrooms. Students in need of one-to-one tutoring will also be allowed on campus with teachers and students meeting outside at a safe distance.

A spokesperson for the United Teachers of Los Angeles, the labor union representing LAUSD educators, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

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