Meet the Mom Challenging Newsom's School Shutdowns

Mother of two autistic children leads lawsuit to reopen California schools

California governor Gavin Newsom / Getty Images
August 10, 2020

Small businesses are devastated and depression rates are rising, but for California resident Christine Ruiz—and countless other parents—the worst part of coronavirus lockdowns is the lack of schooling for her children. The transition to virtual learning has left the most vulnerable students without oversight and critical services. Democratic governor Gavin Newsom opted to keep it that way, issuing an executive order to forbid school reopenings in the fall despite outcry from parents.

"With the fall of school and possibly more [being postponed], now you're telling us this is just our life? This is something that I just can't stomach," Ruiz, the mother of two autistic children, told the Washington Free Beacon. "There's a huge population of students that are not being spoken about, not getting the critical services they need."

Ruiz said her boys cannot go on learning away from the classroom without serious cognitive consequences. After hearing from countless disease experts, she decided she wants to send her children back to school. That's why she and eight other parents are suing Newsom.

Under a new California mandate, parents will not be allowed to send their children to school this fall despite guidelines from medical experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that favor a return to classroom learning. Newsom prohibited in-person schooling in hundreds of school districts, affecting more than 5.5 million students.

The executive order flies in the face of scientific evidence from both disease and education experts. Stanford University medical professor Dr. Jayanta Bhattacharya told the Free Beacon the risk of schoolchildren transmitting the coronavirus is very low.

"We should have good science on this," Bhattacharya said. "The science on this is basically—as best as I can tell—as settled as anything in the COVID epidemic. There is solid evidence that children do not pass the virus on, at least not at very high rates, to adults."

Bhattacharya and infectious disease specialist Sean Kaufman agreed that California's one-size-fits-all approach to school closures contradicts scientific data. Kaufman called for a "blended approach" to reopening schools.

"We have to use science. We have to really think about ... how we're defining health. When we look at health as … are we going to get sick or are we not going to get sick, that's a very important element of health, but it's not the entirety," Kaufman told the Free Beacon. "You've got social wellbeing, you've got mental wellbeing, you've got academic wellbeing, and the reality is when you make a widespread recommendation for something, the cost versus the benefit can be substantial."

Disease experts and parents see firsthand the negative effects of virtual learning on children. Experts argue that virtual learning isolates children from important social experiences, while parents see the poor education experience taking place in their living rooms. One plaintiff, senior Mediaite columnist John Ziegler, told the Free Beacon he was appalled by the quality of spring remote learning and expects even worse results when his daughter starts the school year with a new teacher.

"We were very horrified with what happened in the spring with the so-called remote learning," Ziegler said. "The fall online learning is going to be even worse for my child because now she doesn't know who the teacher is and she doesn't know any of her classmates, and there's no connection."

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are not arguing for mandatory in-person schooling. Ruiz told the Free Beacon she was elated at the idea of a hybrid learning model that would put her boys in school two days a week with supplemental virtual learning for the remaining three days. The lawsuit contends that online learning has a disproportionately negative effect on low-income and minority students, as well as students with disabilities. Attorney Rob Dunn called Newsom's order "regressive" and "devastating" to the underprivileged.

"This lawsuit is really about protecting the rights of vulnerable students," Dunn told the Free Beacon. "There are hundreds of thousands of vulnerable kids who are getting totally left behind.... The rich are going to do just fine [but] this order is devastating for those who can't afford to pay a private teacher."

Experts argue that the harm of online schooling to low-income and minority students is more damaging than the coronavirus. Bhattacharya said inequalities from online learning will last a generation.

"The harm from not having in-person school is so high to the education that the kids will get. We're not even debating about the evidence, it's so solid.... It's not just that the kids won't get educated, there's a very unequal distribution of the cost," Bhattacharya said. "Essentially, the lower-income kids get really harmed by online schooling. These are inequality effects that will last a generation. The costs are too high to not go back to school."

Ziegler and Ruiz said the lawsuit had nothing to do with their political affiliation and everything to do with the science, but they do perceive Newsom's order to be politically motivated. Ruiz has been a Parent-Teacher Association member for several years and claims every teacher and administrator she has spoken to wants to return to work, but unions are holding them back.

"Every [teacher and administrator] I've spoken to want to go back to work," Ruiz said. "They are being held hostage by the unions. The unions have their own agendas and it has nothing to do with educating our children or the safety of our children."

The Los Angeles teachers' union has created a list of far-left economic demands—such as defunding the police and Medicare for All—for the government to meet before teachers return to the classroom. Ruiz insists that the safety and education of children should be the guiding principle in returning to school, not political demands.

"This does not have anything to do with politics," Ruiz said. "This is about the dangerous and profound effects of regression in the special needs student population and also the lack of services provided will be so detrimental to them now and then probably their whole entire lifetime."