Updated: Feb 3, 2021
The City and County of San Francisco filed a lawsuit accusing San Francisco Unified School District, the SF Board of Education and Superintendent Vincent Matthews of violating state law by failing to produce a "specific, concise and clear" plan for reopening in-person instruction for the district's more than 50,000 students
The reopening plans the District has filed with the state amount to little more than "ambiguous empty rhetoric," according to the lawsuit, which called the lack of a clear plan "shameful" in light of research linking remote school with mental and emotional health problems in kids
There are 15,831 students and 2,396 staff participating in in-person instruction at private and parochial schools in San Francisco, and there have been "fewer than 5" cases of suspected COVID transmission in those schools, according to the lawsuit
In a statement, Superintendent Matthews called the lawsuit "frivolous"
San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed a lawsuit on Wednesday accusing San Francisco Unified School District and the Board of Education, the district's governing body, of violating state law in keeping schools shuttered without a clear plan for reopening.
The lawsuit, filed in San Francisco Superior Court, cites a provision in the California Education Code that requires school districts to adopt a learning continuity and attendance plan in the absence of in-person instruction, as well as to define in "specific, concise and clear terms" what actions it will take to offer in-person learning as quickly as possible.
“Public health experts at the federal, state and local level all agree it is safe for kids to go back to school,” Herrera said in a statement. “There are more than 54,000 San Francisco children suffering in isolation right now. Their families are suffering. Our city is suffering. The toll is falling most heavily on working mothers, particularly working mothers of color."
In complying with the California Education Code, the school district submitted responses that amounted to "ambiguous empty rhetoric," according to the City Attorney. Rather than concrete plans or timelines, the district's filing states that it is "exploring a variety of innovative plans," "rethinking time and space," and other platitudes that the lawsuit calls both insufficient and unlawful.
The lawsuit, which is the first of its kind in California, is an unusual move preceded by rising frustration with the school district's failure to produce a specific timeline for reopening, despite in-person learning having been deemed safe by local and national health officials.
San Francisco public schools have been permitted to apply for reopening, with safety and distancing precautions, since September 2020. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also urged local school districts to reopen amid a growing body of research that links remote school with depression, anxiety and other mental health problems in kids.
"This is not just shameful, it is also unlawful," said the City Attorney's filing.
Frustrations with the school district came to a head last week, when the Board of Education voted to rename 44 public schools on the basis of inconsistently applied criteria and apparently shoddy research, an effort that could also cost the district millions. Meanwhile, recently released data from the school district show a widening learning gap that is particularly acute for low-income students and students of color.
Most private and parochial schools in the City, which generally serve more affluent families, have been open for months.
As of late January, there were 15,831 students and 2,396 staff participating in in-person instruction in San Francisco, and there have been "fewer than 5" cases of suspected COVID transmission, according to the lawsuit. In Marin County, a large majority of schools have reopened for in-person instruction, including public schools, and there have been only 9 suspected transmissions reported.
The primary sticking point in local public schools appears to be negotiations with the union representing teachers, United Educators of San Francisco. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the union has issued various demands that exceed the recommendations of public health officials, and may not agree to return even if vaccinated.
"[The lawsuit is] surgical, it's legal, and it's based on a failure of the school district to what it is required under the law," said Herrera at a press conference on Wednesday. Mayor London Breed, who has repeatedly urged public schools to reopen as quickly as possible, also endorsed the lawsuit.
Herrera is seeking an injunction that would command the district to produce a revised plan for reopening that meets the state's requirements.
"That is going to require, and hopefully provide a platform, for the District, [Board of Education] and the union to hammer out an agreement to get this done so the schools can reopen as quickly as possible," Herrera said. "If that forces the district and the teacher's union to come to an agreement, great...I want to see concrete results, and then we'll see where this lawsuit goes."
SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews, who is named as a respondent in the lawsuit, called it "frivolous" in a statement.
"We have been working with the City and we’re going to get farther by continuing to work together rather than playing politics," added Gabriela Lopez, SF Board of Education President.