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Judge rules in favor of North County parents suing over school reopening rules

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated to include comments from Carlsbad Unified School District Superintendent Ben Churchill and Rodger Butler, associate secretary of media relations for the California Health & Human Services Agency.

REGION — A judge today ruled in favor of a group of North County parents who sued the state to overturn pandemic-related rules they allege have unfairly prevented school districts from reopening for in-person learning.

The temporary restraining order issued by San Diego Superior Court Judge Cynthia Freeland prohibits the state from enforcing the provisions of its January framework for reopening schools, which the plaintiffs allege has interfered with school districts’ reopening plans and includes “arbitrary” restrictions that have impeded in-person instruction from resuming

Lee Andelin, an attorney representing the parents, said the order appears to apply to schools statewide. The parties will reconvene in two weeks for a hearing on a preliminary injunction.

Regardless of the ruling, a representative from the California Health & Human Services Agency said that due to progress regarding declining transmission rates and the push for school staff vaccinations, San Diego County high schools and middle schools will be reopening for in-person learning this week.

“California has and will continue to accelerate the safe reopening of schools by increasing access to vaccines for school staff, ensuring ample resources to implement key safety measures, and reducing COVID-19 transmission rates. Because of progress across each of these key factors, middle and high schools throughout San Diego County can reopen for in-person instruction this week,” said Rodger Butler, the associate secretary, media relations, for the California Health & Human Services Agency.

“We will continue to lead with science and health as we review this order and assess our legal options with a focus on the health and safety of California’s children and schools.”

The lawsuit alleges several provisions outlined in the state’s framework are arbitrary, such as one prohibiting high schools and middle schools from reopening until counties achieve a COVID-19 case rate of 7 per 100,000 population while outside of the most restrictive purple tier, elementary schools can reopen at case rates of 25 per 100,000.

Ben Churchill, superintendent of Carlsbad Unified School District, said that while he agrees with the judge’s ruling, it has no impact on the district’s recent decision to have middle and high school students return to school campuses this Monday.

“Practically speaking, at this time there’s no change to what we announced this weekend,” Churchill wrote in an email to The Coast News. “We’re still implementing the middle school and high school return to campus as described in my email on Saturday, March 13, and as subsequently communicated by our principals. We’re excited to welcome our middle and high school students back to campus.”

The lawsuit also pushes back on requirements that students are spaced 4 feet apart in the classroom and they must receive instruction in “stable groups,” rather than changing classes and mixing with other groups of students.

Some of the parents involved in the legal case have said their children have either attempted suicide or expressed suicidal thoughts after learning their schools were continuing solely with distance learning.

The parents allege that the mental health of their children has suffered amid the isolation and loneliness brought on by school closures. Coupled with the hurdles of navigating remote learning, their education has also floundered, they allege.

Freeland wrote that the state’s guidelines have “had and will continue to have a real and appreciable impact on the affected students’ fundamental California right to basic educational equality.”

While she said the state does have a compelling interest in stemming the spread of COVID-19, she ruled that the January 2021 framework “is selective in its applicability, vague in its terms and arbitrary in its prescriptions.”

Scott Davison, co-counsel and director of legislative affairs for the Parent Association of North County, said, “Students are experiencing significant harm as a result of long-term school closures. It is reassuring that the judge appeared to take that suffering into account in balancing the state’s claims that it is within its rights to restrict school reopening to ensure the utmost safety of the public in this pandemic.”

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