San Francisco Sues Its Own School District for Not Reopening

The city claims the school district’s plan for reopening is inadequate and fails to meet the standards required by the state of California — even as Governor Gavin Newsom said schools should reopen now, with or without vaccinating teachers first.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed, left, and City Attorney Dennis Herrera.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — After months of stalled efforts to reopen public schools shuttered by the Covid-19 pandemic, the city of San Francisco on Wednesday sued its own school district to make the Board of Education bring in-person learning back to classrooms.

“The school district is failing to meet this basic responsibility,” Mayor London Breed said in a virtual press conference Wednesday. “I know this is a drastic step, but I feel we are out of options at this point.”

The city has for months offered to help make schools safe to reopen by inspecting buildings and classrooms, setting up a testing program for staff and students and allocating an extra $15 million for the district, Breed said.

Instead of making reopening a priority, the mayor accused the school district of focusing on a far less important and more divisive issue — renaming 44 schools, including those named after George Washington and Abraham Lincoln based on their connections to slavery and the killing of Native Americans.

“During that time, the school board has alienated parents and made national news for their focus on renaming 44 of our schools, all while there wasn’t a plan to reopen those very same schools,” Breed said.

The lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court claims the school board and district’s reopening plan is inadequate and fails to meet basic requirements set by the state, including “to offer classroom-based instruction whenever possible.” The city seeks a court order directing the school district to prepare to offer in-person learning to 54,000 students at 123 schools with certain safety protocols in place.

The city noted 113 private and parochial schools have reopened in San Francisco under health and safety measures approved by the city’s Department of Public Health. Among the 15,800 students who attend those schools, fewer than five cases of Covid-19 transmission have been reported, according to the city.

In neighboring Marin county, nearly 90% of schools — including public schools — have resumed in-person learning, and only nine cases of suspected in-school transmission occurred there.

“More than 54,000 students are suffering,” San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera said. “They are being turned into ‘Zoombies’ by online schooling. Enough is enough. Getting kids back in school needs to be the only priority of school district leadership.”

The lawsuit cites research by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Brown University finding that schools have not been found to be major sources of Covid-19 transmission.

“The undisputed scientific consensus is that schools can reopen safely when proper precautions are taken, such as masks, physical distancing, hand hygiene and ventilation, and that in-person instruction is not causing increases or spikes in Covid-19 infections,” the 21-page complaint states.

San Francisco’s lawsuit comes on the same day Governor Gavin Newsom said schools can and should reopen — even if not all teachers and staff have been vaccinated — provided proper safety protocols have been put in place.

“We can safely reopen schools as we process a prioritization to our teachers of vaccinations,” Newsom said Wednesday.

Newsom’s statement falls in line with what the Biden administration has been urging since Biden won the November election. But already major teacher unions across the state have warned their members won’t go back until they’ve been vaccinated.

Mayor Breed said the San Francisco Unified School District’s prolonged reliance on distance learning has caused serious hardships for students and parents. Nearly 1,000 students have missed 60% of their classes, the vast majority of which are from low-income, Black and Latino families, she said.

School closures have also taken a particularly heavy toll on parents, particularly working mothers and mothers of color who must take time off work or leave their jobs to help facilitate distance learning for their kids, Breed said.

“We know when this happens, it’s almost always women who bear the brunt of this responsibility,” the mayor said.

Additionally, the lawsuit cites research finding school closures have contributed to an increase in mental health problems among students, including depression and suicidal thoughts.

Breed called the failure to reopen schools “paralyzing” for the city and its residents.

“Families right now aren’t able to plan for their futures,” Breed said. “They can’t decide whether to accept a job offer because they don’t know when they’re going to be able to once again have their kids return to the classroom.”

The city claims a learning and continuity attendance plan which the school district was required to submit to the state is woefully inadequate because it fails to specify “actions the school district … will take to offer classroom-based instruction whenever possible, particularly for pupils who have experienced significant learning loss due to school closures in the 2019-20 school year” as required by the California Education Code.

Herrera called the school district’s plan “ambiguous empty rhetoric” and “a plan to make a plan,” which is “legally insufficient.”

The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring the district to prepare to offer safe in-person instruction as soon as possible and to draft a new plan that includes specific actions the district will take to reopen schools safely.

In a tweet Wednesday, San Francisco Board of Education president Gabriela Lopez said the lawsuit is more likely to slow down, rather than accelerate, school reopenings.

“I don’t see how this is helpful when we are making progress while the county has failed to provide the necessary support with the testing and vaccines we need,” Lopez tweeted. “It doesn’t benefit our community when the city continues to divide us.”

The San Francisco Unified School District did not immediately return an emailed request for comment Wednesday morning. But it became a target of more criticism Wednesday for a decision to rename its visual and performing arts department, known as “VAPA,” to the Arts Department because “acronyms are a symptom of white supremacy culture,” according to the department’s director Sam Bass.

U.S. Representative Ted Lieu, a Democrat from western Los Angeles County, called the move “stupid” in a tweet Wednesday, adding that “acronyms are not a symptom of white supremacy culture. They are shorthand to make communicating more efficient.”

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