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Court order reinstates distance learning for disabled students

State officials must act immediately to provide distance learning that is comparable to last year for students with disabilities and also adequate to their overall needs, a judge has ordered.

The court finding, in the form of a temporary restraining order issued Thursday, will provide immediate relief for 15 students — with several dozen others that could follow — but there are broad implications for students across California.

The practices at issue arise from Assembly Bill 130, which put in place rules meant to ensure that school districts provided and prioritized in-person instruction for all students this fall after the pandemic resulted in campus closures the previous year. But the law also had some unintended consequences. The alleged harm in this case was that students who wanted — or even required — remote learning faced delays and roadblocks that kept them out of school and denied them needed services.

“The Court finds that plaintiffs have demonstrated irreparable harm,” wrote federal Judge Susan Illston, of the Northern District of California. “The declarations submitted by plaintiffs show that AB130 has forced parents to choose between the harm of their children losing educational opportunity or risking their health and safety. The declarations detail the very real health risks that these students face if they are required to attend in-person school as a result of their disabilities and the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the educational losses the students have and will experience as a result of missing instruction.”

The mother of M.G., a 10-year-old student with Down syndrome, said in a declaration that her son’s respiratory problems would put him at excessive risk were he to contract COVID-19.

He previously attended “a moderate to severe special day class,” which is for special education students with more intensive needs. Because of the pandemic, his education plan was amended to allow for distance learning, and he had remote access to all of his accommodations and services through June 2021.

But for the new school year that started this fall, she was told remote learning was not generally available. The only remote option — because of AB130 — was a form of independent study that lacked the services needed for her son.

“M.G. has been at home without any access to academic instruction for approximately one month,” his mother said in a declaration from mid-September. “On Sept. 15, 2021, I began paying for a private tutor. I believe that I am being forced to choose between keeping my child safe and allowing him to receive an education.”

Close to 12% of public school students in California — about 721,000 — have recognized disabilities. Many — probably most — of these students have returned to campuses. An unknown but substantial number of families have wanted their children to remain in remote learning.

Seven of the students involved in the lawsuit are from Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school system. District officials have acknowledged extensive and extended problems with their independent study program, called City of Angels. These problems affected all kinds of students, but students with disabilities faced particular challenges, according to parents and advocates.

L.A. Unified had no immediate reaction to the court order.

Other school districts have had similar problems. And other districts with students involved in the litigation include Capistrano Unified, Long Beach Unified, San Diego Unified, San Francisco Unified and Anaheim Unified.

“These are among the largest districts in the state,” said attorney David German, who was part of a team representing the parents who sued. “The problem is very widespread.”

Attorneys did not sue the individual school districts — and the names of school districts are blacked out in parent declarations provided to The Times. Instead, the litigation is against the state of California, the state Board of Education and the California Department of Education.

In a statement, the state education department said that it was “disappointed” by the ruling and that it has worked to make sure the rights of these students were protected. These efforts have included notifying school systems about their “legal obligations to serve students with disabilities.”

“California will continue to work diligently to ensure that all students receive the education they deserve and need to live and thrive in our state,” the statement said.

In another declaration, the mother of a 13-year-old student who has autism and other disabilities recounted that she was told neither remote learning nor independent study was available.

“They said I would need to submit a doctor’s note about why [C.B.] cannot go to school in person so that they could consider Home Hospital Instruction,” she stated. “They told me that C would only get five minutes of instruction per day if someone were [to] come to the home to provide academic instruction. They told
me they are only prepared for in-person learning.”

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