Education in California During A Pandemic

Since the beginning of the pandemic, California’s response to learning has included a combination of laws and guidance from the California Department of Education.  Almost immediately after the closure of physical buildings, the State passed SB 117.  That legislation permitted schools to continue to receive funding even though the physical buildings were closed.  SB 117 also temporarily suspended the timelines by which assessments for special education students were to be conducted.  Then, when a subsequent budget bill was passed, the temporary suspension was lifted and as of July 1, 2020 districts were once again required to complete timely assessments and IEP meetings.

Since the initial school closures, the provision of assessments and services for students with disabilities has been enormously inconsistent, both from district to district and even between schools within the same district.  The drastic disparities among what students who live in different places are receiving is inexplicable given fact that the California Department of Education has made it clear that districts are required to serve students and provide in person services and education when it is feasible to do so.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has consistently ignored its legal obligations to students with disabilities despite the clear directives of the California Department of Education.  Instead of pushing forward with services for the most vulnerable members of its student population, LAUSD has aggressively resisted community requests that they ensure the completion of timely assessments, provide in person services for students with special needs, and open small learning cohorts for students with special needs of the type permitted by law. Each of these steps is essential to mitigating the harm suffered by students with disabilities while schools are not fully operational.

As LAUSD remained intransigent in the face of community calls for action, Vanaman German joined with pro bono attorneys from Milbank LLP and The Law Offices of Alexis Casillas to bring an original action in the California Supreme Court seeking to force LAUSD to make assessments possible for its students and to permit direct instruction and services consistent with the safety plans developed by various public health agencies. The case, known as Alliance for Children’s Rights, et al. v. Los Angeles Unified School District, et al., Case Number S266055 has been briefed and the parties are now awaiting further action from the Court.

While further action by the Court is pending, on December 30, 2020 Governor Newsom held a press conference in which he unveiled California’s Safe Schools for All Plan.

The intention of the Plan is to support schools in operating safely in-person and to expand the number of schools safely resuming in-person instruction.  The Plan is designed to enable young children, grades TK-2 and vulnerable students to return to physical school sites should their families wish to do so while, at the same time, providing distance learning as an option for parents and students who choose that form of education or whose health status does not permit a return to school.

The State will have access to funds from the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 which was signed into law on Sunday. The Act includes $88.88 billion for an Education Stabilization Fund which will be available through September 30, 2022.  The fund is split between the Governors Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER), the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEER), and the Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief fund (ESSER). Governor Newsom also stated the total education package would be about $8.5 billion with $6.5 billion of that amount available for K-12 districts.

The Governor has stated that he will be seeking $2 billion for safe reopening of schools beginning in February with a priority for serving both the youngest children and those disproportionately impacted by the lack of in person instruction.  The Governor’s administration will support frequent COVID-19 testing and the use of personal protective equipment.  The Safe Schools for All Team will be a cross-agency team lead by Dr. Naomi Bardach, a UCSF pediatrician and expert on COVID-19 transmission.

What this will mean to individual students and in individual districts remains, of course, to be seen.  If LAUSD continues to refuse to resist the provision of safe in-person assessments its students will continue to be denied benefits they might be able to obtain in other districts.

In any case, all protections of the federal and state law for students with disabilities remain in place and must be followed by school districts.  While obtaining all necessary services, especially those which must be provided in person, remains a challenge, parents’ right to challenge district actions through the due process system remains in place and active.  Students and their families can avail themselves of this procedure in an effort to secure necessary and compensatory services.

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