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SALT LAKE CITY — A district court judge has ruled that the Salt Lake City School District's sole reliance on virtual learning does not violate students' constitutional rights.
Third District Judge Adam Mow denied a motion for preliminary injunction seeking the reopening of Salt Lake schools for an in-person learning option four days a week, noting that the group of parents who filed the lawsuit failed to meet their heightened burden for a mandatory preliminary injunction that would alter the status quo.
With a nod to local control of schools, Mow wrote, "Under Utah law and Utah State Board of Education guidelines, elected local district school boards have the authority to make that decision for their respective students. Clearly, some students in Salt Lake City School District have struggled with online instruction, which has resulted in academic, emotional, financial and other issues. But this court's task is not to determine whether the board made the best decision or to substitute its judgment for that of the board."
On Jan. 19, Mow heard arguments on the preliminary injunction during a daylong hearing on a motion seeking resumption of an in-person learning option — the aim of a civil rights lawsuit brought by a 11 parents in the Salt Lake district.
The same day, Senate President Stuart Adams, in his remarks on opening day of the 2021 Utah Legislature, referenced "alarming reports that in the Salt Lake City School District, where there is no option for in-person learning, there is a 600% increase in students failing all classes, despite teachers' best efforts."
In a meeting that night, the Salt Lake City Board of Education voted 6-1 to offer in-person instruction in its middle and high schools starting Feb. 8. Students can return to classrooms two days a week under the new plan adopted by the board. Wednesdays will remain a digital learning day and high schoolers can choose which classes to attend in person and which classes to attend remotely.
The district's youngest students returned to classrooms Monday and they will be followed by students in grades 2-6 in successive weeks.
Salt Lake School District was the only Utah school district that elected to rely on remote instruction as its primary mode of instruction. Students who receive special education services or are English language learners have been allowed to come to schools in small group settings.
"Reasonable minds can differ on whether in-person instruction, online instruction, or some combination of them is best for the students of a particular school district in the midst of an unprecedented and evolving pandemic," Mow wrote. "Clearly some students have struggled with online instruction, resulting in academic, emotional, financial and other issues but the district's reliance on the instructional option was not a violation of student's constitutional rights."
The ruling said the "children are not entitled to a specific modality of education — they are instead entitled to access the curriculum." The judge said the district has provided students such access through online instruction, which is what the Utah Constitution requires.
The students' emotional and academic struggles "do not constitute irreparable harm defendants caused, as required for the issuance of an injunction," the 22-page decision states.
Citing Utah Supreme Court precedent, Mow wrote that the decision as to what is best for the school children of the district is left to the local school boards and the Utah Legislature.
"It is not incumbent upon that board to convince the court as to the wisdom, expediency or the advantage to be gained by such decision. This is especially true in cases involving public health crises, where, during times of pandemic, a child may properly be excluded from the public school system entirely if it is determined that such exclusion is necessary to combat the spread of disease," the ruling states.
Attorney Christopher Snow said in a prepared statement that the ruling was a disappointing to his clients, the group of parents.
"The court appears to have been persuaded by the district's argument that the district is not required to provide an equal education to the students in this district as long as some school somewhere else in the state might accept those students. We are saddened that this is the position our local school district has taken.
"The court has also concluded that it is not a constitutional violation to keep one district's students out of in-person classes while all other students throughout the state have the full benefit of their schools. It has further held that this scenario, where students have been locked out of their schools now going on seven months, does not irreparably harm these children. We believe this is based on a misunderstanding of Utah law, which guarantees to students an education that is equal to that being enjoyed by all other Utah students," Snow wrote.
Otherwise, the parents are pleased that the school district is returning part-time to in-person learning, Snow said. "But this is only a half-measure. The plaintiffs are committed to further advocacy and effort to give all Salt Lake students a choice to attend school in-person this year," he said.
Mow said that while attorneys for the the parents pointed to rates of failing grades among students in Salt Lake schools, "they fail to show any credible evidence regarding whether those rates differ from failure rates in the other 41 school districts in the Utah. Thus, the court is left to speculate whether the online-only instruction (the school district) offered — rather than other stresses attendant to life during a pandemic — have caused the increase in failure rates (in the district)."
Additionally, the plaintiffs failed to adequately establish the academic issues are unique to the Salt Lake City School District, he said.
Attorneys for the parents also argued that the limited in-person instruction plan adopted by the school board was insufficient when compared to other school districts with more regular in-person instruction.
"But as there is not a constitutional violation with Salt Lake City School District's online instruction, so too is there no violation with a limited in-person option," Mow wrote.
The Salt Lake school board and State School Board declined to comment on the case.
Meanwhile, the Utah Senate gave preliminary approval to SB107 last week, which would require the State School Board to reallocate a portion of per-pupil funding from a school district that does not provide a broad-based in-person learning option for all students in kindergarten through grade 12 by Feb. 8.
The legislation sponsored by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, would also allow the funding to flow to accredited private schools. The bill remains on the Senate's third reading calendar.