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City Attorney Expands Lawsuit, Filing Emergency Motion to Reopen Schools

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

  • San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera expanded a lawsuit against the City's public schools to include violations of a constitutional right to equal educational access

  • Citing mental health risks to children, Herrera filed a request for a preliminary injunction that, if granted, would force public schools to reopen as quickly as possible

  • Data compiled by San Francisco Unified School District show a growing learning gap along socioeconomic and racial lines as distance learning approaches the one-year mark in SF public schools

  • SFUSD and United Educators of San Francisco, the union representing teachers, recently reached a "tentative agreement" that allows for a return to reopening under certain conditions

One week after filing a lawsuit against San Francisco Unified School District and the Board of Education, City Attorney Dennis Herrera expanded the suit to include constitutional violations and filed an emergency motion that, if granted, could compel public schools to reopen.

The new allegations, which were detailed in a court filing, accuse SFUSD, the Board of Education, and Superintendent Vincent Matthews of violating students' rights under the California constitution to attend public school, discriminating against students on the basis of wealth, and violating a state law that requires districts to provide in-person learning "to the greatest extent possible."

"All children in California have a right to attend a public school and to be treated equally, regardless of their wealth,” said Herrera in a statement. “That is not happening in San Francisco right now, where SFUSD’s own data show the achievement gap is widening. A large number of kids, many of them from low-income families, aren’t getting to see their teachers."

As Public Comment first reported, data on school attendance and performance compiled by SFUSD show a growing learning gap along socioeconomic and racial lines among San Francisco public school students. According to the City Attorney's expanded lawsuit, that amounts to discrimination under a constitutional requirement to provide equal access to education in California. A family's wealth may dictate their access to necessary remote learning tools, such as reliable internet access and computers, the lawsuit noted.

The initial lawsuit, filed last week, accused the school district and Board of Education of violating another state law requiring those parties to issue a "specific, concise and clear" plan for reopening in-person instruction.

Days later, SFUSD and the union representing local public school teachers, United Educators of San Francisco, announced a "tentative agreement" that allows for, among other provisions. a return to classrooms if staff are vaccinated and the City reaches the "red," a more moderate risk tier for infections. San Francisco is currently in the state's "purple" risk tier.

"It’s not nearly enough,” Herrera added. “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. Which kids will be able to go back? When will they be able to? How many days a week? How many hours a day? These are just some of the questions the district hasn’t answered for parents."

San Francisco public schools have been closed since March 2020, and a lack of consensus between SFUSD and the teacher's union has left many families in limbo and struggling to manage work and distance learning. Meanwhile, more than 15,800 students at private and parochial schools have been attending in-person classes for months.

On Thursday, Herrera filed a request for a preliminary injunction that asks San Francisco Superior Court to compel schools to reopen "to the greatest extent possible." The motion cites surging mental and physical health issues among kids in remote school, arguing that the risks to children in denying the motion outweigh the risks to granting it.

A hearing on the motion is set for March 22.

Frustrations over the schools' extended closure, and lack of a clear timeline on reopening, has come to a head in recent days. Public school families, led by a group called Decreasing the Distance, staged a protest and press conference calling for a speedier reopening over the weekend; days earlier, the Board of Education voted to rename 44 public schools, sparking fury among some parents over what they called misplaced priorities.

Public health experts have warned that long-term distance learning, and resulting social isolation, will damage the emotional and mental health of children.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Mayor London Breed made an emotional appeal for the stakeholders involved to put "aside our differences and [do] what is in the best interest of these children." Breed has endorsed the City Attorney's lawsuit, calling it a last resort to force swifter action on schools.

"I'm worried that the tentative agreement proposed by the union will not get us to a place in this city where we will even open schools this year," Breed said.


Image by Jake Buonemani
Image by Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup

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