SAN FRANCISCO (CN) --- In a legal brawl over school reopening, lawyers for the city of San Francisco and its school district battled in court Monday over what state lawmakers intended when they required schools to offer in-person instruction “to the greatest extent possible.”
“The Legislature meant to the greatest extent that state and local health authorities allow,” San Francisco Deputy City Attorney Sara Eisenberg said in a virtual court hearing Monday.
Eisenberg represents the city in a rare lawsuit filed against its own school district. She says the district lacks a solid plan for welcoming most of its 54,000 students back to classrooms by the end of this school year, a failing the city claims violates state law.
The city wants an emergency court order requiring the district to offer in-person instruction to all students by the end of April with public health precautions, such as masking and physical distancing, in place.
On Monday, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ethan Schulman did not appear eager to adopt the city’s interpretation of “the greatest extent possible” in a state education law.
“That’s a very broad, vague phase,” Schulman said. “Isn’t that to some degree in the eye of the beholder?”
San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) attorney Suzanne Solomon argued the “clear language” of the statute requires schools to offer in-person learning based on what is possible in each district. That could depend on a number of factors, including the physical layout of schools, types of ventilation systems in buildings and negotiations with labor unions.
The fact that state lawmakers chose not to add more specific language when they passed a new law on March 4 that gives incentives to districts to reopen classrooms supports that argument, Solomon added.
“This is moot because the district has already been doing everything that’s necessary to meet the language in the statute --- to offer in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible,” Solomon said.
Since the suit was filed in early February, the school district announced plans to offer in-person classes for students up to second grade by April 12 and to all elementary school students and vulnerable students, such as disabled or homeless students, by the end of April.
The district has offered no details on when it plans to offer in-person instruction to sixth graders and older.
When asked why that is, Solomon said the district is simply following state guidelines that tell school districts to prioritize bringing younger students back first. That was based on evidence that younger children are less likely to transmit the Covid-19 virus, she said.
Last week, a San Diego County judge temporarily blocked the state from enforcing guidelines for school reopening that banned in-person learning for middle and high-school students in “purple-tier” counties where Covid-19 is considered widespread. The judge found the state’s reopening framework "is selective in its applicability, vague in its terms and arbitrary in its prescriptions."
When asked how that ruling will affect this case, Solomon said it could lead the state to issue new rules on how different age groups should be prioritized for in-person learning. But for now, the district plans to follow the guidance that prioritizes younger students.
Schulman expressed unease with the idea of a court “micromanaging” a school district’s reopening plan. He asked the city if it expects the court to issue decisions on whether students should be positioned six feet apart instead of three feet apart, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended last week.
Deputy City Attorney Eisenberg said the court would not need to make those determinations.
“Those decisions are being made by the state and local public health authorities,” she said.
The city’s lawsuit cites research finding school closures have contributed to an increase in mental health problems among students, including depression and suicidal thoughts.
Schulman acknowledged the district’s prioritization of younger students for in-person learning but questioned why it has no plan for bringing back middle and high-school students.
“Shouldn’t there also be a plan, deadlines or at least targets for older kids, because after all those kids are suffering the same harms, maybe even worse harms when we talk about depression, anxiety, substance abuse and worse, suicide,” Schulman asked.
Solomon told the judge that the district is working behind the scenes to transition older students away from distance learning.
“Though the school does not have a plan right now to return the middle school and high school students, that doesn’t mean nothing is happening,” Solomon said. “It just means nothing has been announced with specificity.”
In her closing remarks, Eisenberg urged the judge to reject the district’s explanation for its lack of specific plans for older students.
“We are here at the end of this pandemic, and they’re asking us to take their word for it that they are doing something about sixth-to-12th graders,” Eisenberg said.
After more than two hours of debate, Schulman ended the hearing and said he will issue a ruling within the next week.
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