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Parents’ new motion asks judge to open up Salt Lake City schools

West High School in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 28, 2019.
West High School in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 28, 2019.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Attorneys representing a dozen parents whose children are enrolled in the Salt Lake City School District are seeking a preliminary injunction to require the district to open its schools.

The motion, filed in 3rd District Court on Thursday, “is about fundamental rights,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Ryan Bell in a statement.

“The motion filed with the court makes it perfectly clear that the Utah Constitution does not tolerate giving some people fundamental rights while denying others those rights, based only on where they live,” he said.

Earlier this week, the group of parents filed a civil rights lawsuit, seeking their children’s return to in-person learning.

The Salt Lake City School District has conducted school by remote learning since the start of the school year, which was a decision of the Salt Lake City Board of Education. It was the only school district in Utah to select that option in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The motion argues that the school district’s refusal to open schools is contrary to governmental and scientific advice.

“As government officials and public health experts have come to understand the nature of the COVID-19 virus and the means of slowing its spread, a broad consensus has formed in favor of returning students to public schools,” the motion states.

It quotes state and national officials such as President-elect Joe Biden, Dr. Anthony Fauci and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.

“It’s imperative we open our schools. Nobody wants anything other than a safe environment. ... We can not afford to close our schools,” the motion quotes Herbert as part of its argument for the injunction.

Ironically, Herbert is one of the defendants in the lawsuit, along with the Utah State Board of Education, the Salt Lake City Board of Education and Interim Salt Lake City School District Superintendent Larry Madden.

The motion also quotes Utah state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn: “We have demonstrated in school districts, and in elementary schools specifically, that we can keep kids safe in the current environment, we can keep teachers safe in the current Salt Lake City environment.”

The school district “has ignored all of this advice and maintains its fully online learning program and students are incurring “substantial and ongoing injuries as a result,” the motion states.

According to the motion, public records released by the school district show numbers of students with failing grades have increased dramatically this school year.

“Four thousand Salt Lake City School District middle school and high school students received at least one F grade or incomplete in the first quarter of the 2020 school year — an increase of 1,500 over those receiving failing grades last year,” the motion states.

The motion asks the court to enforce Article X of Utah Constitution.

“Fortunately, the Utah Constitution stands as a bulwark against such unequal deprivations of rights by government actors. Plaintiffs are constitutionally guaranteed the right to a free, open and equal education.

“They are also entitled to demand that rights and government benefits be distributed equally, under “uniform operation of laws” principles. Accordingly, plaintiffs ask the court to enter a preliminary injunction mandating that the State Board of Education and Salt Lake City School District reverse course, granting them access to their schools equal to the access now being enjoyed every day by all other Utah students,” the motion states.

Salt Lake City School District spokeswoman Yándary Zavala Chatwin declined to comment on the pending litigation.

Pressure to reopen Salt Lake schools is mounting in other arenas. On Wednesday, legislative leaders gave early approval to a plan that would give K-12 teachers a $1,500 bonus for their hard work amid the pandemic.

The Utah Legislature’s Executive Appropriations Committee tweaked the proposal to extend the stipend to teachers offering in-person learning or some combination of in-person and virtual learning before Jan. 19, 2021, which presumably means Salt Lake teachers would not receive the bonus.

Under the most recent action of the Salt Lake board, elementary students are scheduled to return to school in phases starting in January. The school district also plans to continue to offer remote instruction. The board has not yet addressed the possible return of junior high and high school students.

The board’s next scheduled meeting is Jan. 5.