California’s COVID-Related Restrictions On In-Person Instruction At Public Schools Did Not Violate Due Process Rights

CATEGORY: Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education
DATE: Aug 19, 2021

In response to rising cases of COVID-19, the Governor, the California State Public Health Officer, the California Department of Public Health, and local governments issued executive orders, frameworks, and guidance in 2020 and 2021 that limited the ability of public and private schools to provide in-person instruction to students, which caused many students to receive remote instruction.

In July 2020, a group of parents of students attending public and private schools sued the State and demanded the ability to send their children to school for in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Parents argued California’s COVID-related prohibition on in-person learning precluded children from receiving basic minimum education and violated their fundamental rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The parents also allege that California’s school-closure mandate violated the Equal Protection Clause by arbitrarily treating children attending public and private schools differently from those in nearby school districts, from those in childcare, and from those attending summer camps, even though all such children and their families were similarly situated.

The trial court refused to issue a temporary restraining order against the State and considered dismissing the lawsuit entirely. In opposing the dismissal, the parents submitted declarations that primarily discussed how their children suffered emotionally or academically because of distance learning. The trial court ultimately issued an opinion in the State’s favor without a full trial. The parents appealed.

The Court of Appeals first determined the lawsuit was not moot because the pandemic was not over. Therefore, the State could still issue guidance that would continue to impact public or private school’s ability to offer in-person instruction even though many schools that have already reopened for in-person instruction currently anticipate reopening for the 2020-2021 school year.

On appeal, the public-school parents argued the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provided the “affirmative right to public-school education” that met a “basic minimum” level of instruction. However, the Court of Appeals found that the United States Supreme Court had repeatedly declined to hold that education is a fundamental right, and the Court of Appeals stated that there is “no enforceable federal constitutional right to a public education.” The Court of Appeal did find that the government cannot deny a basic minimum education to a group of students. However, the public-school parents here failed to show the State denied a minimum public education to their students because the declarations offered by the parents were “conclusory and lack sufficient factual detail to establish that the difficulties of the distance-learning method have caused or will cause their children to be deprived of a basic minimum education.”

The Court of Appeals found that the only possible exceptions to this holding for the public-school parents were for those Parents who argued their children were no longer receiving their special education services as outlined in the student’s individualized education program as required by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). However, claims regarding violations of the IDEA must be brought under the IDEA, which has specific due process requirements different than the lawsuit brought by the parents in this case.

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals held that the public-school parents failed to show the students had been deprived of a fundamental right. Because the lawsuit did not involve the State denying a fundamental right to a group of students, the Court of Appeal determined the State only needed to show that its actions in issuing the COVID-related restrictions bore a rational relation to a legitimate government objective. Here, the Court found that abating the COVID pandemic was a legitimate and compelling state interest, and the State’s refusal to allow in-person public school instruction was rationally related to furthering that interest. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision against the public-school parents.

The Court of Appeals also considered similar arguments from the private-school parents. For the private-school parents, the Court of Appeals held that the State’s school-closure policies violated their fundamental right to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children. Specifically, the State’s COVID-related restrictions on in-person instruction at private schools denied private-school parents the “choice of the educational forum itself,” which is a violation of the Due Process Clause.

Because the Court of Appeals found that the State’s action involved denying the private-school parents a fundamental right, it then questioned whether the State’s COVID-related restrictions were adequately justified. Specifically, the Court of Appeals considered whether the State’s infringement of the private-school parents’ rights was “narrowly tailored” to advance a “compelling” state interest. Ultimately, the Court of Appeals ruled the State had not proven why it could not address legitimate concerns about COVID-19 with rules short of a total ban on in-person instruction. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the private-school parents and directed the trial court to reverse its decision.

Brach v. Newsom (2021) __ F.4th __ [2021 WL 3124310].

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