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‘Great unequalizer’: Seven families sue the state of California, saying remote learning is leaving Black and Latino students behind

Many school buildings sit empty because children are learning remotely. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
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Weeks without classes. A WiFi hotspot shared by three siblings. Broken laptops, and unreachable teachers.

These are some of the things Black and Latino families in California say they have had to contend with since schools shuttered in March.

Seven families are now suing the state of California, charging that it has failed to ensure “basic educational equality” for Black and Latino students and for students from low-income households in the shift to remote learning brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

The lawsuit lays out the obstacles students have faced, including sporadic instruction and a lack of access to laptops or reliable Internet. Those issues, along with an absence of training and support for students, parents and teachers, have exacerbated long-standing inequalities, it says, and the state has not enforced minimum standards set by the state legislature.

“The change in the delivery of education left many already-underserved students functionally unable to attend school,” said the complaint, which was filed Monday in the Alameda Superior Court. “The State continues to refuse to step up and meet its constitutional obligation to ensure basic educational equality or indeed any education at all.”

The state Board of Education, Department of Education and Superintendent Tony Thurmond are listed as defendants. Jesse Melgar, a spokesman for Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), defended the administration.

“Throughout the pandemic this administration has taken important actions to protect student learning while also taking necessary steps to protect public health,” he wrote.

Thurmond said in a statement that “there is no question that this pandemic has disproportionately impacted those who have been made vulnerable by historic and systemic inequities.” But the state has worked aggressively to meet students’ needs, he added.

“Since the spring we have secured hundreds of thousands of computing devices for students, pressured internet service providers to expand access, bolstered mental health and counseling resources, made it easier for schools to provide meals, and provided published guidance and dozens of training opportunities for educators to strengthen distance learning for our highest-need students,” he said.

Millions of students continue to learn remotely months after the pandemic began in the U.S. Several school districts that had reopened for in-person classes, or had planned to, have scaled back as infections rise at unprecedented levels. New York City closed its public schools but is reopening them for younger students next week. The entire state of Kentucky also closed schools, while Michigan shut down its high schools and middle schools.

New York City reopening schools for special-education students and younger grades

Remote learning worries education advocates, who say it will widen the achievement gap that separates Black, Latino and poor students from their peers. Many children — in the heart of big cities and in rural countrysides — do not have good enough Internet to attend live classes. They also may lack a quiet place to work or be forced to work as their parents contend with job losses.

Large districts in the state have largely remained closed as their communities continue to battle a surge in coronavirus infections. The state added more than 12,000 cases to its total Tuesday, the day the suit was filed.

The plaintiffs include a cohort of low-income families of color who in the lawsuit shared their struggles with bare-bones remote education. Eight-year-old twins from Oakland were getting just 45 minutes of live instruction a day and 30 minutes of group time with classmates but are otherwise on their own. Last spring, after schools closed, their teacher held class only twice before the school year ended, according to the lawsuit.

Remote learning is leaving children sad and angry

A 5-year-old girl and her 8-year-old sister living in south Los Angeles were given broken laptops last school year and were forced to learn through their parents’ phones. Another family from Los Angeles had three children sharing one WiFi hotspot that frequently cut out, hampering their attempts to learn anything.

Lawyers for the families are calling for the state to pay for remediation to make up for lost learning and “equal access to educational opportunities for all California students, implemented with meaningful participation from low-income, Black and Latinx families.” They are also asking for attorney’s fees.