Families sue California governor over mandated distance learning

​A conservative attorney in San Francisco and several parents sued the state of California on Tuesday arguing that the prohibition of in-person classes deprives children of equal access to a meaningful education. 

The complaint contends that Gov. Gavin Newsom's plan for the coming school year was based on his political interest rather than educational priorities. 

"In Defendants’ rush to enact these new restrictions, they have placed politics ahead of the wellbeing of children, and children’s important — indeed, fundamental — interest in receiving equal access to meaningful education," the 35-page suit states. "Defendants’ arbitrary restrictions on in-person schooling effectively deprive Plaintiffs’ children, and millions of other children across California, of the opportunity for meaningful education and the attendant hope for a brighter future."

Last week, Newsom mandated that any county on the state's coronavirus watchlist will not be able to return to school in person and must provide distance learning. A county must be off the watchlist for 14 days before they can return to real-live class, he ordered. 

Harmeet Dhillon, the Center for American Liberty attorney who is also co-chair of “Women for Trump,” is representing 10 plaintiffs from Central and Southern California. The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Central District of California. 

Her suit asks for injunctive relief and is aimed at Newsom, state Superintendent of Schools Tony Thurmond, Attorney General Xavier Becerra and State Public Health Officer Sonja Angell.

A spokesman for the governor's office, Jesse Melgar, issued the following statement in response to the suit: "As the Governor has explained, science drives the state’s decisions in this pandemic. We will defend this challenge to the Governor’s exercise of emergency authority in this crisis as we have all others, and we note that every federal court to rule on such a challenge to date has ruled that the exercise of authority is lawful.”

Newsom has repeatedly argued that schools will return in person when the data and science shows it is safe. His team is convinced that it is not yet safe to return to school, as the state is seeing a marked rise in coronavirus cases and a steady climb in deaths and positive cases. 

But Dhillon and the families and students she represents don't see it that way. 

Not only does she point to the U.S. Department of Education's urging of schools to stay open, Dhillon also lays out some personal anecdotes experienced by some of the families.

Matthew Brach, who is also a board member of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District and the father of two teens, said his 16-year-old needs "personal interaction" with teachers and his 13-year-old daughter is "suffering emotionally from being isolated from her learning community." 

Jess Petrilla, who lives in Mission Viejo noticed that her son, who was in kindergarten last year, suffered a significant decline in school engagement and needed to be disciplined much more because of his restlessness. 

Petrilla’s wife was forced to take time off of work in order to oversee her son’s education, the suit alleged, and the family is concerned about the negative effects that this prolonged absence from the social aspects of structured education will have on the future development of their son.

There are other parents and families, however, who are petrified about returning to school in person.

On Monday, parents in the Pleasanton Unified School District, who are not part of the lawsuit, held a demonstration to protest the fact that the superintendent is supposedly not providing full distance-learning option as an alternative. 

KTVU's Maureen Naylor contributed to this report. Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at lisa.fernandez@foxtv.com or call her at (510) 874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez.