Oakland Students Join Suit Against State, Alleging Unequal Access to Online Learning

Micaela Ramirez, 13, a student at Coliseum College Prep Academy, receives a laptop at the school during a #OaklandUndivided Campaign on Aug. 17, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Oakland students are part of a larger group who filed a lawsuit Monday accusing California and its top education leaders of violating the state constitution by denying traditionally underserved students equal access to educational opportunities during the pandemic.

“In California, the state has a constitutional duty to provide equal access to education to all students,” said Jesselyn Friley, an attorney with the firm Public Counsel, who helped file the suit. “Our theory is that the state has fallen behind on that responsibility, and during the pandemic it has only gotten worse.”

The suit, filed in Alameda County Superior Court, calls out the state and its education department for mishandling remote education by failing to provide districts with adequate guidance and neglecting to ensure that students, teachers and parents have the basic tools and support needed for distance learning. It also accuses the state of failing to hold school districts accountable for meeting distance education standards put in place by the state Legislature in response to the pandemic.

Plaintiffs, who include students and community organizations from Oakland and Los Angeles, contend that Black and brown students, low-income students and those who are unhoused or have disabilities have not received the remote learning support they need.

Angela J. has three children — including twins — in the Oakland Unified School District who are plaintiffs in the suit. (Attorneys for Public Counsel asked KQED to not provide her real name because of concerns about retaliation.)

Oakland REACH founder Lakisha Young at Sydewayz Cafe in East Oakland, greeting parents arriving to pick up computers and other summer school supplies. (Vanessa Rancaño/KQED)

During the spring, Angela said, her twins’ second grade teacher met with students on Zoom only twice between mid-March and late May. “She just abandoned the whole class,” she said.

As a result, her twins have fallen behind in school; they're still struggling with subtraction when curriculum dictates they should be learning multiplication and division, she said. And their brief daily online interactions with teachers this fall aren’t making up the slack.

“I can't afford to put my kids in private school. So I have to take what they're giving me,” said Angela, who has three additional children and works a full-time job and two part-time jobs. “I want the Oakland Unified School District to honor our constitutional rights.”

Angela contrasts that experience with a distance learning program her twins participated in this summer, run by parent advocacy organization The Oakland REACH, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. In that program, she said, remote learning worked remarkably well both for her and her children.

“The secret sauce to really making that happen was family liaisons,” said Lakisha Young, Oakland REACH co-founder and executive director. Each family of the 200 students who participated in the program was paired with a fellow OUSD parent who was trained to provide mentorship and facilitate connections to resources.

“This person has got your back to make sure you make it to the finish line,” Young said. The liaison might call in the morning just to check in, offer advice about communicating with a teacher or help solve a technology issue. “That makes a huge difference in keeping people in the game, keeping them engaged and even helping them succeed.”

Oakland Reach founder Lakisha Young tells parents in low-performing schools to advocate for their kids.
Oakland REACH founder Lakisha Young speaking to Oakland parents about how to advocate for their kids. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

Angela credits Oakland REACH for engaging parents and designing the program to meet their needs. The organization did so in part by providing each child with a computer and Wi-Fi hot spot, if needed, in addition to ongoing tech support. It also paid parents to participate in their own classes on how to support their kids through distance learning.

“I think distance learning can work if the teachers put forth an effort and they have a system that supports them,” she said. “I don't want to blame it all on the teachers, I think it’s the system.”

Ultimately, Angela, Oakland REACH and the other plaintiffs are asking courts to step in to force the state to ensure that all students have access to the tools they need to successfully participate in online classes. They also want the state to come up with a plan for a return to in-person learning that helps students make up for the learning losses that occurred during the pandemic.

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In a statement, California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond acknowledged the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on "those who have been made vulnerable by historic and systemic inequities," and pointed to his department's efforts to distribute devices, expand internet access and increase mental health resources available to students.

"As California experiences a dramatic surge in COVID-19 infections," he said, "we will maintain a laser focus on protecting the health and safety of our school communities while providing the supports needed to ensure learning continues and, where gaps persist, is improved."

Meanwhile, Jesse Melgar, a spokesman for Gov. Gavin Newsom, defended the administration's response to remote learning challenges. "Throughout the pandemic this administration has taken important actions to protect student learning while also taking necessary steps to protect public health," Melgar said in an email. "We will defend our position in court."

Oakland REACH organizers preparing to hand out laptops and other school supplies to Oakland Unified School District students participating in the organization's summer school program. (Vanessa Rancaño/KQED)

“What we're seeking is not a return to normal, it's a new way of running school for Black and brown kids in California,” said Friley, the attorney.

Earlier this year, Public Counsel settled two lawsuits, in California and Michigan, that charged the states with denying underserved students an equal educational opportunity by failing to teach them to read and write. Under the California deal, the state agreed to pay $50 million to some of the state’s neediest schools so they can examine why performance is so low and come up with a three-year action plan. The settlement also created a literacy expert position at the state level to help schools carry out those plans.

“We want a world where parents and community organizations are working with schools, with districts, with the state, to try and make sure that no kid is being left behind," Friley said. "And that's true regardless of whether we're in a pandemic or post pandemic.”

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