Upping Ante, San Francisco Accuses School District of Violating Student Rights

The city of San Francisco escalated a legal scuffle with its own school district Tuesday with new claims that the failure to reopen school buildings violates students’ rights and discriminates against low-income children.

(Pixabay image via Courthouse News)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Two days after San Francisco’s school system reached a tentative deal with its teachers union for reopening schools, the city accused its school district on Tuesday of violating students’ rights and discriminating against less wealthy children in an amended lawsuit.

“We’re pleased the school district and its unions finally seem to be making some progress on reopening, but it’s not nearly enough,” San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera said in a statement Tuesday. “There are more questions than answers at this point. We have not seen an agreement, but our understanding is that it still doesn’t cover classroom instruction.”

San Francisco sued its school district last week, claiming its plan for reopening is inadequate and fails to meet the standards required by the state of California. The city’s mayor and top civil litigation attorney blasted the school board for moving forward with a plan to rename 44 schools while failing to make reopening schools a priority.

On Sunday, the school district announced a tentative deal with its employee unions in which teachers and staff will return to schools only if they are vaccinated when the city is in red tier status. That is the second-to-highest threat level in which the risk of Covid-19 spread is considered “substantial” under California state guidelines.

If the city is in the lower orange tier, in which the risk of Covid-19 spread is considered “moderate,” teachers and staff will return to school regardless of their vaccination status.

“I am excited we have found common ground on these baseline standards with our unions, paving the way for our gradual reopening of schools,” Board of Education president Gabriela Lopez said in a statement.

On Tuesday, the city lobbed new claims against the school district in an amended complaint, accusing it of discriminating against students on the basis of wealth. Because more affluent families can provide their children adequate technology and support for remote learning, the city claims distance learning disadvantages low-income students in violation of the state constitution’s Equal Protection clause.

“All children in California have a right to attend a public school and to be treated equally, regardless of their wealth,” Herrera said. “That is not happening in San Francisco right now, where SFUSD’s own data show the achievement gap is widening.”

The city also claims the district is violating students’ right under the California Constitution to attend public school and breaking a state law that requires school districts “offer in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible.”

Herrera said he plans to file a motion for an emergency injunction later this week that will force the school district to comply with state law and stop violating students’ rights under the state constitution.

“I took this step only as a last resort,” Herrera said. “The reality is 54,000 public school children are suffering across our city. Just sticking with the status quo and hoping the district came up with an effective plan wasn’t working.”

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

San Francisco Mayor London Breed called the failure to reopen schools “paralyzing” for the city and its residents during a press conference last week. She also said the city offered to inspect buildings and classrooms, set up a testing program for staff and students and allocated an extra $15 million for the district.

On Tuesday, SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick said the district agrees students are better served by in-person learning, but that bringing thousands of students back safely is “complex” and requires partnership.

“We are committed to continuing to work together with the city and labor unions to offer in-person learning options to students as soon as possible,” Dudnick said in an email. “We are eager for the city to make vaccines available to our staff who will be on-site and to bring their resources to support the major new state requirements around both staff and student surveillance testing.”

Last week school leaders denounced the city’s complaint as a “frivolous lawsuit.” Lopez, the school board president, said although the city has provided some support, it has failed to provide assistance in some “big areas” that are necessary to get school buildings reopened.

“We have asked the city to lead the effort to provide surveillance testing for staff and students (a state requirement just added),” Lopez said in a statement last week. “Instead, SFUSD must go through a competitive bidding process and find a provider to administer this critical component of reopening schools.”

SFUSD superintendent Dr. Vincent Matthews said the school system is working to get its classrooms reopened as quickly as possible. He said the district has a comprehensive plan on what in-person learning will look like as soon it completes a series of “clearly laid out steps.”

“It does not benefit our community to have the school district and city fighting. It is a waste of time that we don’t have,” Matthews said in a statement last week.

Also on Tuesday, the city announced it will expand vaccine eligibility to workers in education, child care, emergency services, and food and agriculture. 

“As we keep making progress vaccinating health care workers and people 65 and older, we’re looking ahead to the next phase and are making sure we’re ready to vaccinate workers quickly so they can safely be out in the city serving the community,” Mayor Breed said in a statement Tuesday.

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