Judge Refuses to Make San Francisco Reopen All Public Schools

A judge found a proposed court order to make San Francisco reopen its public schools by April 30 would be “impermissibly vague and judicially unmanageable.”

In this April 9, 2020, file photo, Lila Nelson watches as her son, Rise University Preparatory sixth-grader Jayden Amacker, watch an online class in his room at their home in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Finding a dispute over school reopening effectively “moot,” a San Francisco County judge on Thursday refused to order the city’s school district to reopen its schools to 54,000 students by the end of April.

San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Ethan Schulman found the city’s novel lawsuit against its own school district became pointless when a plan was announced in early March to offer in-person classes to students in second grade and below by April 12 and to all elementary school children and other vulnerable students by the end of April.

“No purpose would be served in ordering the District [to do] what it has already committed to do,” Schulman wrote in a 21-page opinion Thursday.

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera sued the school district on Feb. 3 at a time when the district had no specific dates or timeline for when it would welcome students back to classrooms. Herrera claimed the lack of a detailed plan violated a state law that requires school district to offer in-person classes “to the greatest extent possible.”

Since then, the school district reached an agreement with its labor unions on health and safety issues and announced a plan on March 5 to bring some elementary school students back to classrooms by mid-April.

But even if those developments had not mooted the case, Schulman said he still would have denied the city’s request because the state Legislature imposed no “mandatory duty” on school districts to reopen this school year. He also found it would be practically and logistically impossible for a court to oversee and manage a large school district’s reopening process.

Such a daunting task would require the judge to manage a host of issues, including whether schools should be reopened all at once or in phases; to all grade levels or some; how many days per week classes should be in person; and how far apart desks should be placed from each other in classrooms.

“This court is not in a position to dictate or oversee the district’s decisions regarding how to reopen a large public school system comprising over 50,000 students and nearly 10,000 teachers, staff and administrators at 130 schools,” Schulman wrote.

During a hearing Monday, a deputy city attorney argued a state law requiring districts to offer in-person classes “to the greatest extent possible” meant they must reopen schools “to the greatest extent that state and local health authorities allow.”

Schluman refused to accept the city’s reading of that phrase, finding it could actually mean a number of things, including whether reopening is physically possible, technically possible, politically possible, financially possible or medically possible.

“The court is not free to adopt the city’s preferred interpretation,” Schulman wrote.

The judge further found that the city’s reading was contradicted by a new law passed by the state Legislature on March 4, which offered $2 billion in incentives to encourage schools to reopen to some students by April 1 or May 15 at the latest.

Had the state required school districts to reopen whenever local and state public health departments allow it, “the Legislature would have had no reason to appropriate hundreds of millions of dollars to pay those districts to do what the law already required,” Schluman wrote.

In its request for an injunction, the city cited research finding that school closures have contributed to a spike in mental health problems among students, including depression and suicidal thoughts. Parents also submitted sworn testimony detailing how closures have led their children to develop more anxiety, behavioral problems and bouts of anger and frustration.

The judge acknowledged the “gravity of the concerns posed by a year-long suspension” of in-person learning but concluded “there can be no effective judicial remedy” for those problems.

In an emailed statement, City Attorney Herrera called the decision “disheartening” for San Francisco families who have “suffered” a full year without in-person classes and the hardships associated long-term school closures.

“Today’s decision was not a victory, but the court recognized the tremendous toll that being unable to return to school has taken on children,” Herrera said. “As the court acknowledged, there can be no doubt as to the adverse effects of the past year on students, families, teachers and school staff.”

San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Vincent Matthews called the lawsuit a “superficial distraction” from the important work of safely returning students to in-person learning.

“The Court noted the scope of this work, including the detailed agreements we have entered into with our labor partners regarding health and safety standards and instruction as well as the timeline we have set forth to return students to campuses,” Matthews said. “We remain focused on safely reopening school buildings this spring and beyond.”

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