City of San Francisco sues its own school district to force classrooms to open

The City vs. the School Board. 

City Attorney Dennis Herrera on Wednesday sued the San Francisco Board of Education and the San Francisco Unified School District for violating a state law that orders districts to adopt a clear plan during the COVID-19 pandemic describing actions they "will take to offer classroom-based instruction whenever possible. 

The SF Chronicle, which first reported the news, said San Francisco will become the first in the state — and possibly the entire country — to sue its own school district to force classroom doors open.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Herrera alleged the school board and district’s reopening plan is "woefully inadequate and doesn’t meet the basic requirements set by the state, including "to offer classroom-based instruction whenever possible."

The lawsuit seeks a court order directing the school district to prepare to offer in-person instruction now that it is possible to do so safely and California gave the go-ahead to San Francisco as well as other counties to return to class.

Since the school district and the trustees have already "squandered" months of opportunity to develop a real plan as required by state law, Herrera said he will file a motion on Feb. 11, asking the court to issue an emergency court order. If granted, the order would compel the district to act at that point, before the final outcome of the case.

At a hastily convened counter news conference to respond to what he called a "frivolous lawsuit," San Francisco Unified School District Supt. Vincent Matthews said later on Wednesday morning that the entire issue is complex and that Herrera's charges are "incorrect."

Namely, Matthews said that the district indeed has a "comprehensive plan" to reopen, which has not been canceled, as Herrera's suit alleges. He said he is meeting "every other day" with the unions to come up with specific logistics. No one from the teachers union responded for comment. 

"We are working extremely hard to get our buildings open," Matthews said.

He added that he should have been at a "building walk-through" on Wednesday, instead of fending off accusations from the city attorney. 

School board president Gabriela Lopez called the lawsuit "petty," adding that in her opinion, "the city and the county have failed to provide adequate resources," such as COVID testing. 

Both Matthews and Lopez said it doesn't do anyone any good to snipe at each other and turn a serious situation into a political one.  And Herrera agreed; he doesn't want to fight with the school board. 

"It’s a shame it has come to this," Herrera said. "The City has offered resources, logistical help and public health expertise. Unfortunately, the leadership of the school district and the educators’ union can’t seem to get their act together. 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."

The lawsuit also has the mayor's blessing. But. Mayor London Breed said that the city has given the school district $15 million above and beyond what it normally does and the results of that money are not paying off. 

Breed said a lawsuit isn't the "path we would have chosen, but nothing matters more right now than getting our kids back in school." She emphasized that Black, Latino, and Asian students, especially low-income students, have lost ground academically compared to white and wealthier students. And for working parents, distance learning is a complete nightmare. 

"This is hurting the mental health of our kids and our families," she said.

She also made sure to not disparage the teachers. 

While she said they've done an "incredible job of trying to support our kids through distance learning," Breed said the efforts are just not working.

Breed said opening schools safely is completely possible. 

She pointed to private schools that have opened and city-run community learning hubs that are up and running, with no major COVID outbreaks. 

Most of Marin County's public elementary schools have been open since October - with no COVID outbreaks tied to those schools - even during the winter surge. In fact, Marin County schools have been in session for 91 days with an average of 17,000 students. There have been zero transmissions of COVID from student to teacher, according to county data. Schools have also been operating in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Napa counties, with no serious outbreaks, either. 

Researchers at Brown University in December found that schools were not a significant source of COVID-19 spread. Similarly, a study by researchers at Duke University in January of 11 North Carolina school districts revealed no instances of child-to-adult transmission COVID were reported within schools. Last month, researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published findings from a global examination of COVID-19 outbreaks at K-12 schools, which concluded that in-person instruction in the fall had not significantly increased COVID-19 infections.

Also on Wednesday, the CDC said that schools can safely reopen even if teachers are not vaccinated for the coronavirus. 

Herrera said that the aim of the lawsuit is to show that "in-person instruction needs to be the Board of Education’s singular focus — not renaming schools that are empty, or changing admission policies when teachers aren’t in classrooms. Enough is enough."