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Court Denies City Attorney's Emergency Motion to Reopen SF Public Schools

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

  • San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ethan Schulman denied a request for.a preliminary injunction that sought to reopen local public schools for all students as soon as possible

  • At a hearing earlier this week, the City Attorney asked the court to order San Francisco Unified School District to reopen classrooms for all students, arguing that this should be done by the end of April

  • Schulman called the request "impermissibly vague" and moot, given recent developments, in an opinion published Thursday

  • The district plans to reopen a limited number of classrooms on April 12, prioritizing young and special needs students, but has not yet set a timeline for middle and high school students

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ethan Schulman denied an emergency motion filed by the City Attorney that sought to reopen local public school classrooms as soon as possible.

In an opinion issued on Thursday, Schulman wrote that the motion, in which the City Attorney requested that the court compel schools to reopen for all students by the end of April, was "moot" given recent actions by the district to reopen for some students starting in about three weeks.

"The injunctive relief sought by the City would be both impermissibly vague and judicially unmanageable," Schulman wrote in the opinion, saying that existing precedents don't necessarily support the City Attorney's request and that the district is moving forward with reopening.

At a hearing on Monday, attorneys representing the San Francisco City Attorney and San Francisco Unified School District sparred over whether the district has a legal duty to offer in-person instruction to all students under existing law. The City Attorney sued SFUSD, the Board of Education and Superintendent Vincent Matthews in February, accusing the defendants of failing to establish a clear plan for reopening schools in violation of state law.

Deputy City Attorney Sara Eisenberg asked the court to order the district to reopen in-person learning for "all students, of all grades, to the maximum that state and local health orders allow." Arguing that the legal obligation to do so is in place now, Eisenberg requested that the court set a deadline of the end of April to allow the district time to prepare.

Suzanne Solomon, the attorney representing the defendants, countered that the district is already complying with the law in developing a plan to reopen schools for in-person learning. The district announced last week that it will reopen classrooms on April 12 for a limited number of young and special-needs students, but has not yet set a timeline for the return of middle and high school students.

"We are working on it," Solomon said.

At the center of Monday's arguments was California's AB 86, a state law approved by the legislature in March that established incentives for districts to reopen schools "to the greatest extent possible." The City Attorney argued that phrase must be interpreted as the extent possible under official health orders, not in terms of a district's operational challenges. The two parties also debated the impact of a court ruling in San Diego that favored a parents' association seeking to reopen schools full time.

"We are at a point where we're a year into this pandemic, and the district is asking us to take their word for it," said Eisenberg, adding that doing so "strains credulity."

San Francisco schools have been permitted to open since last fall, and the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued updated guidance dictating that schoolchildren may be spaced closer together in most classrooms, potentially allowing for expanded school capacity.

San Francisco parochial and private schools have offered in-person learning for months, but the City's public school district has lagged behind many other districts in the state. In the Bay Area, schools in Marin, Contra Costa County and parts of the South Bay are offering at least some in-person instruction, according to a map published by the state.

Schulman appeared impatient with some of the more technical legal arguments at Monday's hearing, at one point raising the realities of student learning losswhich has disproportionately impacted vulnerable and minority studentsas well as economic and psychological hardship among families struggling with remote learning.

"This a mess," said Schulman, though he also expressed skepticism towards the notion that courts should "micromanage" school operations amid changing health guidelines.

In a statement on the court's denial of the emergency order, City Attorney Dennis Herrera said that he "vehemently" disagreed with the court's ruling.

"We swung for the fences in seeking this court order because San Francisco families deserved it," he said. "We came up short, but the case is not over. We’re evaluating all of our legal options going forward.”

In the meantime, SFUSD is facing a long-term budget deficit that may be exacerbated by a drop in its student population.

The latest official numbers from the district, issued in October 2020, showed a 2% drop in the number of pupils served. Any substantial drop in the number of students could affect SFUSD's level of funding from the state, which is partially dictated by daily attendance numbers.

A document prepared by the district's educational placement office showed a roughly 10% drop in applications for kindergarten for the 2021-2022 school year. Other grades were roughly flat or saw lesser drops. District-wide, applications for all grades fell to 13,917 from 14,468, equivalent to a 4% decline.

The Board of Education is facing harsh scrutiny, both over its performance on reopening in-person instruction and actions by board vice president Alison Collins, who was recently found to have published offensive tweets about Asian-Americans.

At a special meeting on Thursday, the Board of Education voted to strip Collins of her vice president title and committee assignments. Thus far, she has refused to resign despite calls from fellow leaders in SFUSD and other city officials.


Image by Jake Buonemani
Image by Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup

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