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Utah judge denies lawsuit giving option for classroom learning

Richard Vyukusengere, left, and his brother, Didace Mahoro, attend school remotely at home in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. Salt Lake City parents who are suing the Salt Lake City School District are asking for an injunction to allow for an in-person learning option. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah district judge ruled against a lawsuit that would give students an option to go back into the physical classroom in the Salt Lake City School District (SLCSD) through a decision made Thursday. Third District Judge Adam Mow stated the group of parents who filed the suit couldn’t substantially prove students were uniquely disadvantaged from virtual learning. 

Classroom lawsuit finds no direct evidence of harm 

The decision denied a motion for a preliminary injunction by the plaintiffs hoping to reopen SLCSD schools four days a week.  

Specifically, Mow ruled that the 11 parents behind the lawsuit couldn’t prove “irreparable harms” as a direct result of virtual learning. Mow pointed to an argument made by the plaintiffs’ that SLCSD failure rates are increasing during the 2020-2021 school year. 

“They [the plaintiffs’] fail to show any credible evidence regarding whether those rates differ from failure rates in the other 41 school districts in Utah,” Mow said. “Thus, the Court is left to speculate whether the online-only instruction SLCSD offered—rather than other stresses attendant to life during a pandemic—have caused the increase in failure rates in SLCSD.” 

Equal access to education 

Mow ruled it doesn’t violate the student’s constitutional rights to learn solely online because there is equal access to the curriculum offered in both in-person and remote instruction. 

The “plaintiffs’ children are not entitled to a specific modality of education—they are instead entitled to access the curriculum,” Mow wrote. “Plaintiffs’ children are being offered access to curriculum appropriate to their age and development level through the online instruction SLCSD offers. They have not faced a restriction on their access to that curriculum that is not placed on other students in the State.” 
 
In short, the judge ruled that the parents’ didn’t prove online learning hinders students’ educational development and causing them to fall behind in school. 
 
Mow also argued that the plaintiffs have the right to enroll their kids in any Utah school district. 
 
“Plaintiffs have the ability to transfer their children to schools in other districts or charter schools if they disagree with SLCSD’s Restart Plan, as evidenced by the 1,230 students from SLCSD who have already availed themselves of such opportunity during the 2020-2021 school year,” Mow said. 

School districts decide how to teach 

Additionally, Mow gave credence to the school district, citing Utah law that gives SLCSD the power to determine the best way to educate students, especially in the wake of a public health crisis. 
 
“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,” Mow ruled.
 
However, Mow said even though some students may be struggling, the court cannot intervene in school board decisions. 
 
“Clearly, some students in Salt Lake City School District have struggled with online instruction, which has resulted in academic, emotional, financial and other issues,” Mow wrote. “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.”