Lawsuit against Gov. Newsom and Shasta County schools claims 'government overreach'

Damon Arthur Redding Record SearchlightPublished 9:00 AM EDT Sep 23, 2020A group of Shasta County parents&nbsp

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A group of Shasta County parents filed a lawsuit against California's governor, other state officials and several local school districts, claiming COVID-19 restrictions that keep their kids out of school could set their children back educationally for years to come.

The three parents named in the lawsuit claim their children's rights under the California Constitution are being violated because they cannot attend on-campus school five days a week because of COVID-19 restrictions imposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The lawsuit, filed Sept. 10, in Shasta County Superior Court also says the governor has violated the state Constitution's "separation of powers" clause by ordering restrictions on schools to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The case was filed by Mariah Gondeiro, a lawyer for the conservative Freedom Foundation, who said the parents and students are being hurt by the restrictions on schools. 

"Gov. Newsom is just implementing this one-size-fits-all approach to education, handicapping school districts, requiring them to abide by these state mandates, not giving them power and discretion. So we're just on the side of freedom,” she said

Her organization has filed similar suits in Washington and Oregon, but this is the first in California, she said. It also has filed lawsuits against Oregon and Washington challenging their mask orders.

"The virus poses very, very minimal risk to children but the risk to their educational development is far greater. We acknowledge that there is a risk of harm but there are least restrictive measures that can be taken. Measures that don’t have to infringe on the rights of students, especially the disadvantaged who are suffering disproportionately from these policies,” she said.

The lawsuit names as defendants three school districts and their superintendents: Shasta Union High School District and Superintendent Jim Cloney, Enterprise Elementary School District and Superintendent Brian Winstead and Millville Elementary School District and its superintendent, Mindy DeSantis.

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The reaction to the pandemic has been mixed among Shasta County’s 26 school districts, and each has chosen an individual plan for teaching under state-imposed restrictions.

Some districts have allowed students to return to campus full time, but the most common plan has been a “blended model” where students attend classes on campus for part of a week and away from school the remainder of the time. Districts also offer to let parents keep children home and learn through an independent study or distance learning program

DeSantis did not return phone calls seeking comment about the lawsuit. Cloney said he could not comment on the suit because it is an active case.

Enterprise Elementary began the school year in August with most instruction through distance learning, but children were allowed to return to campus for five-day-a-week classes starting this week, said Meagan Hawley-Stone, the Enterprise District's human resources director.

Parents in the Enterprise district can continue to keep their kids off campus and continue distance learning, Hawley-Stone said.

Enterprise is one of at least seven districts in the county returning to full time, while Shasta High district will remain on the blended class schedule. Shasta High district allows students to attend classes two days a week.

Millville Elementary operates on the blended model, which divides the student body into two groups, with each group alternating attending class on campus two days a week, according to a statement on the district’s website.

The district’s board is researching how other school districts have reopened five days a week and plans to consider the topic at its Oct. 20 meeting, according to a statement on the district website.

Beth Watt, one of the parents in the suit, has two children attending Millville Elementary School. She said her children have suffered because of distance learning.

"Online education is causing serious mental health issues, along with an academic crisis the students find themselves in. Our children deserve better than this; our tax-funded education system is failing students,” she said in a news release.

Since the beginning of the school year in mid-August, 19 students and five school staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, the Shasta County Health and Human Services Agency said Monday.

"It's important to know there has not been an identified case of transmission in schools," county public health spokeswoman Kerri Schuette has said. "That means that the schools' processes are working for ensuring that once a student is identified the transmission is stopping there."

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That was before before University Preparatory School in Redding and Foothill High School in Palo Cedro each confirmed a virus case this week.

U-Prep said it was transitioning to distance learning for 14 days beginning Tuesday, while Foothill was asking five people, who came in close contact with the person who tested positive, to stay home.

Beyond campus restrictions, Gondeiro said the lawsuit will iron out other issues besides how schools have reacted to the pandemic.

She said Newsom and other states around the country want courts to set judicial precedent on whether governors can use their police powers to invoke restrictions on businesses and schools.

"I think it's important to challenge any government overreach, because what I think is happening is governors are inviting the court to set a precedent that would allow state governors to use their emerency powers, in other words police powers, in whatever fashion they deem necessary in the name of public health and safety," Gondeiro said.

"But the reality is they still have to abide by the Constitution and constitutional rights are not just suspended during a virus," she said.

Also named as defendants in the suit are state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, state Public Health Officer Sandra Shewry and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond.

Damon Arthur is the Record Searchlight’s resources and environment reporter. He is among the first on the scene at breaking news incidents, reporting real time on Twitter at @damonarthur_RS. Damon is part of a dedicated team of journalists who investigate wrongdoing and find the unheard voices to tell the stories of the North State. He welcomes story tips at 530-338-8834 and Help local journalism thrive by subscribing today!
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