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California Agrees to Spend $2B for Kids Harmed by Remote Learning

The state has settled a lawsuit filed on behalf of low-income students of color from Oakland and L.A. They claimed the state offered insufficient support for remote learning.

In a legal victory for California children whose education suffered during the pandemic from lack of access to remote learning, the state has agreed to steer $2 billion directly into fixing the problem, lawyers said Thursday, Feb. 1.

The relief plan for the state's neediest public school students settles Cayla J. v. California, a 2020 lawsuit filed in Alameda Superior Court by 14 low-income students of color from Oakland and Los Angeles.

Their suit accused the state Board of Education and Tony Thurmond, the state's elected schools chief, of failing to provide the equipment, services and support needed for low-income students to keep pace with wealthier classmates when COVID-19 shut down schools in March 2020. The pandemic forced nearly 6 million California children to study remotely for at least a year and a half, causing severe learning loss and triggering an avalanche of chronic absenteeism.

The settlement provides no new money, which would have been unlikely as the state confronts a massive budget deficit and expects to have to cut $38 billion to $68 billion from the budget in 2024-25 — including from public education.

Instead, the agreement relies on at least $2 billion in unspent block-grant funds the state has already allocated to schools. That money must now be aimed directly at elevating the academic performance of California's neediest students and reducing their chronic absenteeism, problems that spiraled into crises during the pandemic, the lawyers and their experts argued.

"We are pleased with this settlement," said attorney Michael Jacobs of Morrison Foerster in San Francisco, which represented the students with Public Counsel in Los Angeles. "Under its terms, school districts will take a hard look at the pandemic recovery needs of their students, and then apply evidence-based tools to address those needs."

Attorney Mark Rosenbaum of Public Counsel called the settlement "historic," noting that it is "the largest we are aware of dedicated at one time to the most pressing crisis in America today."

Alex Traverso, spokesperson for the state Board of Education, said the proposal "includes changes that the administration believes are appropriate at this stage coming out of pandemic" for students who were "most impacted and continue to need support."

The agreement calls for lawmakers to introduce legislation requiring school districts to identify which students need the most help academically — those scoring "low" or "very low" on exams — and those who need help to get them to school at all.

The legislation would amend the state Education Code so that districts would have to show not only how they would spend their share of the $2 billion, but also how research supports that plan. The districts would be required to apply the same "evidence-based" standard that the federal government used in its last round of pandemic relief for schools, the agreement says.

If all proceeds smoothly, Jacobs said, targeted help for students could begin in the next school year.

But if the state fails to amend the Education Code as specified, the lawsuit could be revived.

Among the expected changes to the state law is to encourage districts to work with "community-based organizations with a track record of success serving high-need students ... to the extent such organizations operate in the area," the settlement says.

One such group, Oakland Reach, trained parents as tutors during the pandemic and became the subject of a case study by Arizona State University researchers. Noting that 65 percent of Oakland school children read below grade level in 2022, the researchers found that "students who worked with tutors made larger gains in literacy compared to their peers who lacked access."

Lakisha Young, the founder and chief executive of Oakland Reach, praised the new settlement as a "guarantee that money will go to where it belongs — to the kids and schools who need it the most, and to push our systems to adopt evidence-based practices."

The lawsuit recounted the pandemic education stories of five Oakland children and nine from Los Angeles. All were Black or Latino and used pseudonyms to identify themselves.

Cayla, the lead plaintiff in the suit, and her twin sister, Kai, were second graders in an Oakland public school when the pandemic lockdown hit in March 2020. The girls lived with their father, who had a chronic illness, and their mother, who worked two part-time jobs in addition to a full-time position to keep the family in their home.

Their schooling all but stopped, and their teacher held class just twice during the rest of the school year, according to the suit. What the Oakland school district offered "barely resembled learning," the suit said.

When the twins' mother complained, the teacher said that classes had to be canceled for everyone because some of the students couldn't connect remotely, according to the suit. Although the district gave computers to the students, Kai's stopped working after one month, and it took another month for her to receive a new one.

Meanwhile, the school offered no recorded classes for students to take on their own time or provided any other make-up lessons, the suit said.

Such problems persisted throughout the pandemic and led to learning setbacks around the state, mainly for low-income students of color, said the lawsuit, which noted that learning at that time depended on digital access that many students didn't have.

Attorneys for the state had argued that California "worked aggressively" to protect children from backsliding academically during the pandemic and cited the billions of dollars the state spent to provide technology and bolster academics and address mental health needs of students.

But in August, Judge Brad Seligman refused the state's request to throw out the lawsuit, and urged the parties to settle the case.

The agreement announced Thursday also carries accountability measures, including public reporting requirements and permitting members of the public to issue a formal complaint if they believe the settlement is being violated.

The settlement includes $2.5 million in attorneys fees.

(c)2024 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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