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California Department of Public Health
A group of North County parents have filed suit against Gov. Gavin Newsom and top state health officials to reopen schools. File photo
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North County parents take legal action against state, school districts

SAN MARCOS — A group of North County parents filed a lawsuit on February 16 in Vista Superior Court against state officials and several school districts in an effort to get students back to in-person learning.

Several residents, with the support of the Parent Association of North County, took legal action against Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state officials, as well as San Marcos Unified, Carlsbad Unified, San Dieguito Union High, Poway Unified and Oceanside Unified school districts, alleging the state overstepped in its authority and the decision is directly impacting the mental health of students.

“Distance learning was never intended to be a long-term solution to education,” said Ginny Merrifield, executive director of the Parent Association. “Over time, the distance learning model has proven to be wholly inadequate as an educational experience. Teachers have tried their hardest, but no matter how hard teachers try, it’s an inadequate way to teach students.”

In the complaint, families report a lack of academic support for students struggling with remote learning. Families claim that happy students have experienced trauma related to extended school closure and loss of athletics and other activities that have caused social isolation and academic struggles.

According to the lawsuit, as a result of school closures, students have sought professional medical attention for depression, anxiety, cutting and suicide attempts. Students have suffered learning loss and failing grades, according to several written testimonials from anonymous students within the lawsuit.

It also says that the social isolation and loss of peer support has resulted in students withdrawing from normal activities and in some cases finding ways to self-medicate with alcohol and drug use.

“A year later, and not only have students not gotten the full academic experience of school, but they’ve also been deprived of the critical developmental experiences that students need at every grade level,” Merrifield said. “They’re missing out on developmental stages, social and emotional developmental states that they can’t recover. We can’t underestimate the damage that has been done to these students, so time is of the essence.”

The action is looking to overturn the January guidance that prohibits middle and high schools from reopening until their county achieves a case rate consistent with the “red tier.”

On Sunday, Newsom struck a deal with Democratic leaders to reopen schools for the state’s youngest students, transitional kindergarten through second grade, by April 1, according to the LA Times.

The new proposal, Assembly Bill 86, would offer $2 billion in grants to schools that reopen and bring back at-risk students in all grades, including school districts within counties under the state’s “purple tier” designation, media outlets reported.

But according to Merrifield, the selective nature of allowing some students to return while others must continue distance learning is part of the reason for the lawsuit, which seeks to have all schools fully reopen immediately.

“We believe the state is inappropriate in issuing that guidance to begin with, especially because it’s arbitrary,” Merrifield said. “Some schools are open, some aren’t, some can reopen and some can’t reopen, and it’s all based on decisions they made back in November. The kids are all the same, and the state is all the same, and the virus is all the same. It’s inconsistent.”

School district administrators and state officials could not be reached for comment for this story.