San Diego court decision granting temporary reprieve from CDPH framework has statewide implications

On March 15, 2021, Superior Court Judge Cynthia A. Freeland issued a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) in A.A. v. Newsom, et al, a lawsuit brought by several students against six school districts in San Diego County, Gov. Gavin Newsom and key members of his COVID-19 response team (“State Defendants”). The students challenged the constitutionality of the reopening framework and guidance issued by the California Department of Public Health on Jan. 14.

In the order, Judge Freeland temporarily “restrained” the State Defendants from enforcing or applying the CDPH Framework orders, statutes or laws that include the prescriptions or provisions of the CDPH Framework. The TRO applies to all local educational agencies in California. The parties are scheduled to return to court on March 30, 2021, to argue whether the TRO should be lifted or whether a preliminary injunction should be issued against the State Defendants. It remains to be seen whether the State Defendants will file a writ of mandate with the 4th District Court of Appeal to stay the TRO. Court decisions on TROs and preliminary injunctions happen much more quickly than traditional litigation, and if the judge in this case issues a preliminary injunction on March 30, the defendants would be able to immediately appeal the injunction to the appellate court.

Judge Freeland specifically found that the CDPH Framework’s requirement that students in grades seven through 12 remain in distance learning while LEAs could offer in-person instruction to students in transitional kindergarten through grade six unconstitutionally denied the fundamental right to education to students in grades seven through 12. Although Judge Freedland found that the State Defendants could demonstrate a compelling state interest in protecting the public against the spread of COVID-19, the CDPH Framework was not “narrowly drawn” to serve the state’s interest. As a result, the CDPH Framework denial of in-person instruction to one group and not to the other violated the equal protection clause of the California Constitution.

Because this ruling applies statewide, unless or until the order is changed or overturned on appeal, the state may neither require LEAs to follow the CDPH Framework, nor can it enforce the CDPH Framework against those who choose not to follow it. The judge also ordered the district defendants to open their schools to the greatest extent possible at the earliest practicable time and relieved three of the school district defendants of the obligation to comply with safety review requests issued by CDPH. This part of the order is specific to the named districts and does not apply statewide to other LEAs.

While this order means that LEAs are not temporarily obligated to follow the CDPH Framework, CSBA urges boards to continue to use best practices for safety with respect to COVID-19 for school reopening plans. LEAs providing in-person instruction should continue to follow best practices for mitigation of COVID-19, including, but not limited to, use of personal protective equipment, social distancing, ventilation, and hygiene and cleaning practices. LEAs are not prohibited from following the guidance on these best practices in the CDPH Framework. LEAs may also follow guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on school reopening.