School reopening triggers lawsuits in Ohio, other states

Communities in Ohio and nationwide have had heated debates about how the school year should begin, with some of those disputes turning into lawsuits. Ohio has only one school reopening lawsuit so far, and it’s an individual school district being sued, according to the Ohio School Boards Association.

That’s not the case elsewhere, as at least five states have active lawsuits where teachers, families or schools are suing the state itself.

Ohio lawsuit

A family sued the Upper Arlington school district in Columbus (as well as the Franklin County health commissioner), after the schools announced plans to open the year in an online, remote-learning model. The family wants an in-school option for those families who prefer it.

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Their lawsuit says “there is no reliable scientific evidence that establishes a causal relationship between the spread of COVID-19 and options for in-person instruction.” They also argue that the schools were wrong to rely on advice from the county’s top two health officials, as they are administrators, not doctors.

The Ohio School Boards Association filed a “friend of the court” brief, asking the court to “preserve the local authority of boards of education.”

“The principle at issue — the right of a board of education to exercise its vested authority to manage its schools and govern its pupils without interference by a few parents who disagree with a board’s decision — has broad import for school boards’ decision-making authority, going well beyond the current pandemic,” OSBA said in a filing with two other state education groups.

The next deadline for briefs to be filed in the case is Sept. 3. In the meantime, Upper Arlington schools are operating entirely via remote learning.

California parents sue

California officials banned in-person school in more than half the state’s counties, and two groups of parents sued in federal district court, saying their children would be “deprived of an adequate education.”

The parents say distance learning is less effective for special needs and lower-income students who face barriers to online models. Their lawsuit cites the due process and equal protection clauses of the constitution as well as federal laws addressing civil rights and special education.

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State officials opposed the group’s request for a temporary restraining order, saying their arguments misstate the health risks of COVID-19. A key hearing is scheduled for Monday.

Florida teachers sue

Florida issued a state order that most schools had to make in-person, five-day-per-week school available for families who want it by the end of August or lose funding.

Teachers unions sued the governor and state education commissioner, arguing that the order violates the state Constitution’s provision for “safe” and “secure” public schools.

On Monday, a judge granted a temporary injunction against the state’s order, calling parts of it unconstitutional. That means individual districts can decide for themselves. But state officials immediately said they would appeal the ruling.

Iowa lawsuit

The school district in Iowa City, along with the state teachers union, sued Iowa’s governor and state education department over a partial reopening order that would require in-person school at least half the time.

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds pointed to a recently passed law saying schools “shall not take action to provide instruction primarily through remote-learning opportunities” unless the governor approves.

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The plaintiffs say the law conflicts with the governor’s Constitutional responsibility to protect the people of the state. They also say state law gives local schools authority over their education plans, calling this the wrong time for a one-size-fits-all approach. The state’s largest school district, in Des Moines, filed its own similar lawsuit Tuesday.

Other cases

Arguments are scheduled Sept. 11 in Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court in a case where a private school and others argued that local health boards, not the governor, have decision-making authority in a pandemic.

In Oregon, a federal judge denied three Christian schools’ request to be allowed to open despite the governor’s order that all public and private K-12 schools stay closed.

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