Lawsuit seeks to force Salt Lake City School District to return to in-person classes

Several families say their children have been unfairly and unconstitutionally harmed.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) An empty classroom at Bonneville Elementary School, on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. Eight families filed a lawsuit Monday seeking to force Salt Lake City School District to return to in-person classes.

Eight families sued Monday seeking to force Salt Lake City School District to return to in-person classes, saying children there are unfairly and unconstitutionally harmed in the only district in the state that has offered only online classes so far this school year.

“By refusing to open the doors of the public schools in Salt Lake City for the entire duration of the 2020-21 school year to date,” their lawsuit says, “the Salt Lake City School District has enacted an historic deprivation of rights.”

They contend that “the district’s online education program is failing catastrophically,” with 4,000 out of its 10,259 secondary students failing a class during the first semester of the year. It said that was an increase of 600% over last year.

The families contend the school district has adopted unreasonable metrics that they say may prevent any in-person classes this year, while all other school districts in the state have found ways to offer at least some in-person classes.

“Without court intervention, most of Salt Lake City’s students are likely to finish this school year without ever entering their schools, without an in-person conversation with a teacher, a school lunch, a P.E. class, or a science lab,” the lawsuit says. “There is every indication they will continue to fail, absent court intervention.”

The lawsuit in 3rd District Court names as defendants the school district and its superintendent, Larry Madden. It also names Gov. Gary Herbert and the Utah State School Board, saying they failed to guarantee equal education for all state students.

The eight families suing have a total of 24 students in the school district.

The plaintiffs are Eric and Tori Bergstrom, Christine and Craig Demourdant, Salli Fiefia, Nicole and Jason Kirchner, Jeff Mortensen, Kody Powell, Starr and Michael Smith, and Raina Williams.

The lawsuit said several of the plaintiffs’ children are suffering because of online-only classes.

“One plaintiff student has gone from being a mostly straight-A student to suddenly getting mostly F’s,” the lawsuit said. “That student’s brother was also a straight-A student and has received multiple failing grades this year as well.”

It said other plaintiffs’ children, as well as other SLCSD students, “have suffered mental and emotional harms as a result of the closure of schools, including increased isolation, depression, anxiety, loss of enjoyment of life, and suicidality.”

The lawsuit complains that the district voted to allow a staggered return to in-person learning for elementary schools beginning Jan. 25 but has not approved a return for in-person learning for middle or high schools. The lawsuit said the district has not changed a requirement for COVID-19 testing to return to a positivity rate of 5% or less for a week before allowing in-person classes. That rate currently is well above 20%.

“All other public school students in the state have been allowed to attend their schools in person and have received in-person instruction during at least a significant portion of this school year,” the lawsuit said.

“Salt Lake City is not distinctively worse than other areas with respect to viral transmissions, positivity rates, or other metrics. By refusing to provide equal opportunities to the students of Salt Lake City … defendants have violated the uniform operation of laws and have treated persons similarly situated dissimilarly under the law.”

The lawsuit is not seeking any monetary damages but is asking the court to order the school district to immediately cease “the constitutional and legal violations” from not offering in-person classes.