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Families sue Herbert, SLC School District over closed schools

Posted at 2:08 PM, Dec 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-15 00:43:31-05

SALT LAKE CITY — As Ella Fiefia watched a YouTube video demonstrating a science experiment Monday, she talked about how she's learning about density in class. The video was one of many linked to the her daily lesson plan online.

It isn't the way the 7th grade Clayton Middle School student expressed that she likes to learn.

She indicated that her normal A's and B's, have slipped into D's, C's and F's because of the online-only curriculum provided by the Salt Lake City School District.

"It's been super stressful, but also the stress can build up some sadness," the 12-year old said. "Some of the kids in my grade that I've been talking to have gotten really depressed, because of all the stress."

While Ella sits at home with her four other siblings who currently attend school online, she watches other family and friends close by go to class in person-- just because they live in a different school district.

"It kind of just builds up even more jealousy, which sadness can play in also as well," she said. "And so, we just kind of feel left out."

Not just an issue of being left out, but her mother and other parents believe, it's an issue that violates the Utah Constitution.

Eight families including Ella's filed a lawsuit Monday claiming their children's education has been negatively affected by the decisions of Gov. Gary Herbert and the Salt Lake City School Board to keep schools closed during the pandemic.

The plaintiffs: Eric and Tori Bergstrom, Christine and Craig DeMordaunt, Salli Fiefia, Nicole and Jason Kirchner, Jeff Mortensen, Kody Powell, Starr and Michael Smith, and Raina Williams are parents of 25 children who attend Salt Lake City School District schools.

The lawsuit says by not allowing students to return to the classroom, the defendants have "enacted an historic deprivation of rights, stripping 21,000 students of basic rights secured by the Utah constitution."

READ: Salt Lake City students hold protest to attend in-person school

"In the constitution, it states that every child should have access to free, open, public education not based on gender, race, sex, location, etcetera," said Raina Williams, one of the parents in the lawsuit. "And our kids in our little pocket of Salt Lake City School District are being discriminated against, because of where we live. And we don't have the power to change that."

At issue is not whether the Utah Constitution must provide a free and open public-school system, but whether it must guarantee an in-person experience.

The parents in the lawsuit, including Williams, argue that other school districts around the state have opened their doors, giving students the benefit of in-person instruction and social interaction.

The Salt Lake City School District is the only one in the state to have remained closed due to COVID-19. Other Utah districts welcomed students back to the classroom at the beginning of the fall semester, but many schools have returned to remote learning due to rising cases.

Salt Lake City schools have said they will not reopen until the number of those who test positive for COVID-19 during a given week falls below five percent. The state's positivity rate was over 24 percent Monday.

In the lawsuit, parents referenced a Salt Lake Tribune report that showed nearly four thousand secondary school students had failed a class in the first semester of the school year. They believe that without schools reopening, more students will fail.

"This data came out that there's a 600 percent increase in the number of kids failing, and they still haven't called an emergency meeting," she said, speaking about the Salt Lake City School District board of education. "These are the facts, these are the reality of online education in Salt Lake City School District, and you're still not doing anything about it?"

Ryan Bell, one of two attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, explained that they want the court to enter an injunction to "enforce the law."

"And that means, give our students a chance to an open public education that is equal to what is being provided to the rest of the state," he said.

In addition to that, he talked about how they want the court to mandate the Utah State Board of Education pass minimum standards about when school should be in session for in-person learning, and when schools should close the doors because of COVID-19 case numbers.

"We believe that there ought to be uniform standards that allow all districts to govern themselves in a uniform way," Bell said.

Ella said she hopes to go back to class, even on a hybrid schedule. She'll have to wait to see how the lawsuit her mother is part of pans out.

"It's just so much easier to learn when I'm in person," she said. "It's easier for me to see the teacher doing the work in front of me."