San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera is filing a lawsuit Wednesday against the city's school district, arguing that the district is now out of compliance with a state law directing districts to adopt a plan for reopening for in-person classes.
Herrera has the blessing of Mayor London Breed in trying to force the hand of the SF Unified School District (SFUSD), and this comes after months of back-and-forth in which Breed has decried the district's project to rename 44 schools while not prioritizing bringing students back for in-person learning. Just last week, the school board voted to accept all the recommendations of a renaming committee that formed last year, with a goal of voting by April on new names for schools named for Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Dianne Feinstein.
As the Chronicle reports, Herrera is now calling out the SFUSD for their "ambiguous, empty rhetoric," and saying they are violating a California law that took effect last September that requires a clear plan for resuming in-person classes. The law specifically says that a plan must be in place for students who have experienced "significant learning loss due to school closures."
The lawsuit precedes a preliminary injunction Herrera plans to file to compel immediate action from the district, which he says he will file February 11.
"It’s a shame it has come to this,” Herrera said in a statement to the Chronicle. “The Board of Education and the school district have had more than 10 months to roll out a concrete plan to get these kids back in school. So far they have earned an F. Having a plan to make a plan doesn’t cut it."
Mayor Breed, who put up $15 million in city money toward the school reopening effort, says that distance learning has had an outsized impact on Black, Latino, Asian, and low-income students. Meanwhile, the state just gave the green light for four Bay Area counties, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Marin, to reopen K-6 schools due to declining COVID cases.
"This is not the path we would have chosen, but nothing matters more right now than getting our kids back in school,” Breed said in a statement. "This is hurting the mental health of our kids and our families. Our teachers have done an incredible job of trying to support our kids through distance learning, but this isn’t working for anyone."
In mid-December, the local teachers' union and the district announced they had failed to reach an agreement on reopening schools for a small segment of students by January 25 — under a plan that had been announced before the holiday-season surge in COVID cases. Under that plan, six elementary schools, 11 preschools, and classes for the learning disabled were set to restart between January 25 and February 8, with other students returning by March. But the teachers' union balked and laid out safety demands that, according to the district, were "beyond the Department of Public Health’s guidance." Mayor Breed at the time called the deadlock "infuriating," as the Chronicle reported.
No subsequent plan has emerged, which has led to the city's lawsuit.
School Board President Gabriela López tells the Chronicle, "I think filing a lawsuit will most likely slow us down. I don’t see how this is helpful right now when we are making progress and the county has failed to provide the necessary support with the testing and vaccines we need."
School Superintendent Vince Matthews tells the Chronicle that he does not expect middle or high school students to be back in public-school classrooms in San Francisco this academic year.
Now, there could be a strike taking shape, with six unions that represent SFUSD employees all talking about potentially striking if reopening moves forward without certain demands being met. Among the demands that were reportedly made by the teachers are that all school employees get access to COVID-19 vaccines, and teachers be provided with personal protective equipment, air purifiers, COVID safety training, and proper ventilation for all classrooms.
The city is likely to cite the fact that there have been no known outbreaks at any of the 113 private and parochial schools across the city since they resumed in-person learning in the fall. A total of 15,000 school children at these private schools have been back in the classroom for months with masking and distancing precautions in place.