San Francisco sues school district over closed campuses 'with no end in sight'

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An aerial view of an elementary school playground in San Francisco. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

SACRAMENTO — The city attorney for San Francisco, with support from Mayor London Breed, is suing San Francisco Unified and its school board over prolonged campus closures, saying school leaders “have no meaningful plan” to reopen classrooms.

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in San Francisco Superior Court against the school district, Superintendent Vincent Matthews and the San Francisco Board of Education, City Attorney Dennis Herrera alleges that school officials have wrongly resisted campus reopening despite public health advice that says it’s safe.

“I know this is a drastic step, but I feel we are out of options at this point,” Breed said at a news conference Wednesday alongside Herrera. “…While I don’t control the schools, I am the elected leader of this city and I’m not going to stand by while our children and our families continue to suffer with no end in sight.”

The lawsuit is asking the court to compel San Francisco Unified schools to reopen, citing state law that says districts should attempt to do so to the best of their ability. But it’s unclear what power the courts have to enforce that, as local school boards hold the ultimate authority. Gov. Gavin Newsom himself has struggled to motivate most of California’s schools to reopen, with access to vaccines for teachers now a top demand while the state grapples with supply problems.

“While research is increasingly showing that the mental and emotional health of many students is at greater risk during the pandemic as they struggle with distance learning, San Francisco officials, children and families do not know what steps have been taken, what remains to be done, or how they can help,” the lawsuit states. “This is not just shameful, it is also unlawful.”

San Francisco has been praised for its early shutdown orders and mask compliance and has been looked to nationally as a model for how to maintain low virus case rates.

Like most of the state, San Francisco County is still in the strictest purple tier following a record high surge, but its seven-day average virus positivity rate is 2.9 percent compared to the state’s average of 10 percent.

Under Newsom’s latest proposal, San Francisco County is eligible to reopen schools to K-6 grades. Newsom’s Safe Schools for All plan, which has yet to be approved by the Legislature, requires schools to prove an average daily rate of 25 new cases of Covid-19 per 100,000 residents in their counties. The state-adjusted rate in San Francisco is half that level at 12.5, the sixth-lowest in California.

But San Francisco Unified, which enrolls more than 50,000 students, has remained closed to in-person instruction for nearly a year.

The district had plans of reopening to younger students and to students with disabilities in January, but that plan was canceled because it could not reach an agreement with the United Educators of San Francisco.

Matthews pushed back on criticism from Breed and Herrera that the district does not have a serious reopening plan. The district does have a plan, he said, but the union sign-off is not there.

“To say that we do not have a plan is absolutely incorrect,” Matthews said. “We have to agree with our labor partners around what a safe return looks like.”

The union has requested precautions that go beyond what the California Department of Public Health has recommended, according to SFUSD officials.

The United Educators of San Francisco said in a statement to the San Francisco Chronicle that it is “very disappointed” in the city. “UESF has been calling for the city to help with resources, such as COVID testing and vaccines, but this has not happened,” the union said.

School Board President Gabriela López echoed concerns on Wednesday about not enough help from the city and county to support reopening, calling for more virus testing supplies and vaccine access for teachers.

López called Wednesday “an embarrassing day for San Francisco.”

“This is a petty lawsuit, and it doesn’t benefit our community to have the school district and the city fighting,” she said.

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