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California Judge Blocks State from Enforcing ‘Arbitrary’ School Reopening Requirements

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Students in several San Diego-area school districts are heading back to class after a Superior Court judge issued an order on Monday temporarily blocking state officials from enforcing several rules that have prevented many schools across California from reopening.

The judge, Cynthia Freeland, sided with a group of parents with the Parent Association of North County San Diego, writing in an order that the state’s reopening framework, released in January, is “selective in its applicability, vague in its terms, and arbitrary in its prescriptions.”

The parents had argued the state’s framework was preventing some schools from reopening, and was permanently harming students, many of whom are struggling with online learning.

National Review reported on the Parent Association’s efforts in February.

Freeland issued a restraining order on Monday blocking state officials from enforcing the reopening framework. It directs the seven North County San Diego school districts to “reopen their schools for in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible at the earliest practicable time.” It also creates an opportunity for schools statewide to reopen their doors while the restraining order is in place. A full hearing on the matter will be scheduled in the coming weeks.

“I think justice was served to children,” Ginny Merrifield, the Parent Association’s executive director, said of Freeland’s ruling. “They’ve been waiting a long time.”

Merrifield said that several San Diego-area school districts had plans in place to resume in-person learning when state officials released their reopening framework in January. She said framework requirements, including four-foot limits on space between students, and rules requiring students to remain in small cohorts within a single classroom effectively prevented middle schools and high schools from reopening their doors.

“You couldn’t change classes,” Merrifield said. “Obviously that doesn’t work for high school and middle school.”

CDC guidelines recommend schools maintain a six-foot distance between students, but Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, acknowledged Sunday that the CDC is “very well aware that data are accumulating making it look more like three feet are okay under certain circumstances.”

In her ruling, Freeland acknowledged that “these are unprecedented times” and that “governments have struggled (understandably so) with how best to minimize the devastating effects of the virus.” But she wrote that the state framework that has allowed many elementary schools to reopen for in-person learning while preventing secondary schools from doing so, “has as its effect the unequal treatment of students in the various Defendant School Districts.”

“Indeed, there can be no dispute that students throughout the districts at issue have, as a result of frameworks or rules adopted by various governmental agencies, received differing forms and levels of education,” Freeland wrote in her order.

She wrote that it is “disingenuous” for the state to argue that the plaintiffs haven’t demonstrated that the quality of distance-learning programs falls below statewide standards. In fact, she wrote, declining academic success and “an enormous number of D and F grades” make it “difficult to conclude that remote learning is an effective educational model.”

She also noted the impact being out of school has on the mental health of students, and their ability to “adjust normally to their environment.” A framework that perpetuates remote learning for some students, but not for others, “has created an impermissible divide in access to education as otherwise guaranteed by the California Constitution,” Freeland wrote.

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for March 30. Merrifield said that at that hearing, the North County San Diego school districts will need to show that they’ve reopened, or explain to the judge why they haven’t. She said four of the districts actually supported their case.

When the Parent Association first launched last fall as a voice for frustrated parents, the group’s leaders focused their attention on the local school districts, Merrifield said. But they quickly realized all of the districts were battling the same issues. When the state issued its reopening framework in January – a framework that made reopening more difficult – it became “very clear to all of us that we weren’t really battling our local districts,” Merrifield said.

“The districts have said they wanted to reopen, and now we realize it was much more of a state issue,” Merrifield said. “This guidance just made it almost impossible to reopen. It became increasingly apparent that our districts really couldn’t do anything on their own.”

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Ryan Mills is a media reporter at National Review. He previously worked for 14 years as a breaking news reporter, investigative reporter, and editor at newspapers in Florida. Originally from Minnesota, Ryan lives in the Fort Myers area with his wife and two sons.

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