Prior to the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year, most school districts provided a form of distance learning for their students during the pandemic. However, the California legislature passed Assembly Bill (“AB”) 130 this summer. AB 130 required that schools go back to in-person instruction and end distance learning, unless distance learning occurred through independent study. A student without disabilities could quickly and easily qualify for independent study by stating his or her “health would be put at risk by in-person instruction.” However, AB 130 did not allow students with disabilities to participate in independent study unless his or her individualized education program (“IEP”) specifically provided for independent study.
Parents of students with disabilities (“Plaintiffs”) sued the California Department of Education and other statewide entities tasked with enforcing AB 130, arguing that AB 130 was discriminatory for several reasons. The primary three reasons were that:
1) Many students with disabilities were more vulnerable to COVID infection than other students without disabilities;
2) Students with disabilities could not easily request independent study, versus other students without disabilities, because their IEPs did not allow for independent study; and
3) Independent study was not designed for students who cannot work independently, and many students with disabilities require adult assistance and other accommodations to learn.
Plaintiffs then requested that the types of distance learning and related accommodations that were available during the 2020-2021 school year be available to them again.
The defendants argued a number of defenses, the primary of which was that Plaintiffs had not exhausted their administrative remedies for a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (“IDEA”).
On November 5, 2021, a federal judge in the Northern District of California ruled in Plaintiffs’ favor, finding that AB 130 denied students the benefits of public education by failing to provide them with a reasonable accommodation (distance learning), and therefore was discriminatory. Furthermore, Plaintiffs were not subject to the administrative exhaustion requirements under IDEA because they were not seeking relief for the denial of FAPE. Instead, they sought relief from the independent study limitations imposed by AB 130, which created systemic and discriminatory barriers for students with disabilities. The judge then enjoined the defendants and related parties and required them to provide the types of distance learning available during the 2020-2021 school year, including:
- Virtual instruction, including direct assistance from trained instructors and opportunities for peer interaction;
- The services and accommodations in their IEPs
This temporary restraining order only applies to the named state parties and related school districts, including Los Angeles Unified School District, and does not apply statewide. However, this is the first court decision on AB 130 and could be used as a template by other judges if and when additional lawsuits are filed.
School districts must respond promptly if they are served with a lawsuit or demand, as there are set time frames to respond that are associated with these types of lawsuits. If you have any questions regarding AB 130, please contact your OMLO attorney.
OMLO will continue to monitor these developments carefully. This article is for informational purposes only and only provides an overview of specific developments. It is not intended to be, and should not be construed as, legal advice for any particular fact situation. For actual legal advice and specifics pertaining to your governmental entity, please contact your OMLO attorney for assistance.