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Families ask court to order return to in-person classes for Salt Lake City students

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Families ask court to order return to in-person classes for Salt Lake City students

By Ashley Fredde, | Posted - Dec. 17, 2020 at 6:59 p.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — A preliminary injunction filed on Thursday asks a judge to return Salt Lake City School District students to in-person classes.

"This litigation is about fundamental rights," Ryan Bell, one of the attorneys representing the parents of Salt Lake students, said in a press release. "The motion filed with the court makes it perfectly clear that the Utah Constitution does not tolerate giving some people fundamental rights while denying others those rights, based only on where they live."

The preliminary injunction follows a lawsuit filed on Monday that comes after the school district voted over the summer to begin school solely by remote learning and has been the only school district in Utah to continue solely with online instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic. The lawsuit says "the Salt Lake City School District has enacted an historic deprivation of rights, stripping 21,000 students of basic rights secured by the Utah Constitution."

The motion filed Thursday argues that the court must enforce the provisions of the Utah Constitution by entering an injunction and requiring Salt Lake City School District to reopen its schools and allow students to access in-person learning.

The motion cites Utah law stating that "no child of school age … can be lawfully denied admission to the schools of the state because of race, color, location, religion, politics or any other bar or barrier." It also argues that keeping kids from attending classes in person violates a provision in the Utah Constitution that establishes a public education system "which shall be open to all children of the state."

The official complaint points to the school district's demographics, with 56% of its students being low-income, 57% of students representing ethnic minorities, having the third-largest amount of students experiencing homelessness, and the fifth-largest number of economically disadvantaged students, per state data.

Pressure for Salt Lake City School District to open its classrooms has increased due to the lawsuit and Utah lawmakers announcing in-person requirements under a proposal for educators or school staff members to receive a one-time "COVID-19 educator assistance stipend" of $1,500 for teachers and $1,000 for school staff. The bill would require school districts to provide an option for in-person learning in all their schools by Jan. 19 to receive the bonus.

The motion for preliminary injunction doesn't outline a specific reopening date.

The language adding the additional pressure was proposed by Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville. Several Democrat leaders expressed their concern that the language was targeting Salt Lake City but Wilson pointed to students falling behind with news reports of over 4,000 junior high and high school students who have received an F or incomplete grade during the first quarter of school. The numbers reflect an increase of 1,506 students from just a year ago, according to school district data.

The lawsuit and the motion filed Thursday name Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, the Utah State Board of Education, the Salt Lake City Board of Education and Interim Salt Lake City School District Superintendent Larry Madden, as defendants.

A Salt Lake City School District spokesperson declined to comment on the pending litigation.

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