For many schools in the U.S., returning to the classroom means a stop in the courtroom.
The fight over whether to reopen classrooms in person in the United States is increasingly moving into the country’s courtrooms as the pandemic disrupts the nascent fall semester.
The legal actions reflect the competing views over brick-and-mortar versus remote instruction. Some are suing to stay out of the classroom, and others to get in.
In Iowa, the Des Moines school district has asked a court to reverse an “unsafe” mandate that it bring students back in person at least halftime.
In Florida, a circuit court judge sided on Monday with teachers’ unions fighting a state rule conditioning school funding on the availability of in-person classes. (The state is appealing.)
The California Supreme Court has taken up two lawsuits — one filed on behalf of private schools, the other by a charter school and the Orange County Board of Education — challenging state mandates that have kept classes solely online for most California students.
The litigation often mirrors the country’s partisan divide.
Florida and Iowa are led by Republican governors who support President Trump’s push to get students back into classrooms in the hope that it will boost the economy, which remains very weak as the nation heads into the election.
California and Oregon are Democratic-led states with strong teachers’ unions, and the governors there have argued that until infection rates are brought under control, it is unsafe to fully reopen schools.
Ordinarily, decisions on how best to educate children and protect the public rest with elected officials, said Tom Hutton, interim executive director of the Education Law Association. “But a combination of factors is bringing these things to the court, one being that the stakes are so very high from an education and health standpoint,” he said.
Many judges now find themselves faced with a balancing act.
“I think courts generally are deferential to public health authorities,” Mr. Hutton said. “At the same time, on education calls, they tend to defer to school boards. And if you have the immovable object and the unstoppable force, in most cases, public safety wins.”
Some suits have presented a rare exception.
In Ohio, the parents of a special needs student in Columbus filed a suit early this month against their school district after it announced plans to follow the local health department’s recommendation and begin the school year with remote instruction. The suit, which was later joined by five other families, said the children would suffer irreparable harm.
Other lawsuits are more ideological.
In California, for instance, the plaintiffs against the state include two Christian schools and the board that oversees charter school applications in Orange County, a small panel dominated by political conservatives who have urged schools to reopen without face masks.
And in Iowa, a suit filed Tuesday by the Des Moines schools names Gov. Kim Reynolds, a supporter of the president whose aggressive push to reopen schools has been criticized by teachers unions and health experts, and has prompted other lawsuits.
“At its core, this is a case about local control,” the Des Moines suit argues.
Mr. Trump spoke at the end of the Republican National Convention, and his vaccine pledge came amid remarks that also touched on tax cuts, his border wall, Supreme Court appointments and his trade war with China, among other Republican policy priorities.
Speaking from the South Lawn of the White House, Mr. Trump likened the U.S. fight against the pandemic to mass mobilizations during the Civil War and World War II.
“In recent months our nation and the entire planet has been struck by a new and powerful invisible enemy,” he said. “Like those brave Americans before us, we are meeting this challenge. We are delivering lifesaving therapies. And we’ll produce a vaccine before the end of the year, or maybe even sooner.”
The president’s speech did not mention that the pandemic has killed more than 180,000 people in the United States, the world’s highest national death toll by far. There also were no signs of social distancing on the lawn, where about 1,500 folding chairs with roughly a foot between them were facing the lectern.
Mr. Trump’s vaccine pledge is a tall order by any measure. Several companies are gunning for approval by the Food and Drug Administration by the end of this year or perhaps in early 2021, but approval is just the first of many steps. Patients must be willing to take the vaccine, for example, and there must be enough doses produced to be distributed.
The longer that vaccines are tested before being released, the likelier they are to be safe and effective. But the White House’s search for a silver bullet to end the crisis has prompted fears among government researchers that the president — who has spent his time in office undermining science and the expertise of the federal bureaucracy — may push the F.D.A. to overlook insufficient data and give at least limited emergency approval to a vaccine.
Mr. Trump spoke on the fourth and final night of a convention in which Republicans glossed over or misled about his efforts in confronting the pandemic.
Most of the speakers on Thursday — including Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development and a physician himself — made only glancing references to the virus, if they mentioned it at all.
One exception was the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump, who said in her speech that she had seen him express sympathy for those who have died of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“I’ve seen the pain in his eyes when he receives updates on the lives that have been stolen by this plague,” she said.
In a survey of 14 countries with advanced economies, the United States and Britain fared the worst on a question about how people view their country’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Only 47 percent of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center said their country had done a good job of handling the spread of the virus, according to results published on Thursday, while 46 percent of Britons viewed their government’s response favorably.
None of the other countries got an approval percentage below 50, and among all 14 surveyed, a median of 73 percent of respondents said they approved of how their country had handled their outbreak. The highest rates of approval were in Denmark (95 percent) and Australia (94 percent).
The United States has by far the highest number of infections and related deaths in the world, while Britain ranks fifth in total deaths, according to a New York Times database.
The researchers also asked whether people believed their country was more divided than before the virus hit, and 77 percent of the Americans surveyed said yes, while no other country registered above 60 percent on that question. Only a quarter of Danes said the same about their country. That was the lowest percentage, followed by 27 percent of Japanese respondents and 29 percent of Canadians.
In Europe, people with positive views of right-wing populist parties were more likely to say that division had increased, especially in Germany.
In the United States, three-quarters of Republicans and independent voters who lean toward the Republican Party told Pew researchers that the government had done a good job dealing with the virus, while only a quarter of Democrats, or those leaning toward the Democratic Party, said the same.
The researchers said perceptions of economic circumstances played a role in how people rated their country during the pandemic.
“Across all 14 nations included in the survey, those who think their current national economic situation is good are also more likely than those who believe the economy is bad to say their country has done a good job of dealing with the coronavirus outbreak,” the researchers wrote.
The Pew researchers spoke to 14,276 adults by phone from June 10 to Aug. 3.
Reporting was contributed by Alexander Burns, Maggie Haberman, Shawn Hubler, Mike Ives and Lauren Wolfe.