San Francisco sues its own school district to force reopening

The move, first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, marks an escalation in a fight between Mayor London Breed (D) and the San Francisco Unified School District over when and how the city’s more than 54,000 public-school students will return to in-person instruction, while the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc across the country.

Those students, roughly 85 percent of whom are racial minorities, have been learning virtually since March as the district negotiates the terms of reopening with its teachers union. The district previously planned to welcome back young children and students with disabilities in late January, but the timeline was extended after labor negotiations failed.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera (D) on Wednesday accused school officials of failing to develop a detailed reopening arrangement after more than 10 months of virtual learning, turning students into “Zoom-Bies.”

“Unfortunately, so far, they are earning an F,” he told reporters. “Having a plan to make a plan doesn’t cut it and is no plan at all.”

School board president Gabriela López called the lawsuit, filed in state court, “petty” and accused city officials of failing to adequately support the district in its attempts to return to in-person learning. Instead of providing surveillance testing, López said, the city is forcing the district to engage in a competitive bidding process to access the service.

“We understand that this is painful, and we all want to get back, but this is an embarrassing day for San Francisco,” she said at a news conference.

The fraught decision of whether to open school doors has recently caused tensions to boil over in several major cities where officials, teachers and parents have found themselves at odds. Public schools in D.C. reopened Tuesday after a protracted battle with the teachers union. In Chicago, officials backed down from a planned return to in-person instruction after teachers threatened to strike.

Daily coronavirus infections in San Francisco County fell dramatically in January and hospitalizations also declined, according to data tracked by The Washington Post. New data, meanwhile, suggests that schools do not contribute significantly to the virus’s spread when mitigation measures are in place, such as masks and good ventilation.

Those findings suggest that public-school students can safely return to classrooms, city officials argue. Nearly 16,000 students at private and parochial schools in the city have been learning in person, with fewer than five cases of suspected in-school transmission, the lawsuit says.

The public-school closures have disproportionately affected students of color and low-income students in the city, as they have nationwide, Herrera said. He added that he intends to file a motion on Feb. 11 asking a judge to issue a preliminary injunction compelling the district to act.

Breed pushed back on López’s suggestion that the city’s aid was insufficient and that it had left the district on its own to set up coronavirus testing. San Francisco officials have also helped to inspect school buildings and allocated $15 million in extra funding to the district, she said.

“This is paralyzing our city and our residents,” Breed said of the school closures. “And I know that this [lawsuit] is a drastic step, but I feel we are out of options at this point.”

Breed added that she considers the school board’s recent decision to change the names of more than 40 schools an empty show of support for racial justice that fails to address more-urgent inequities created by virtual learning. Those schools are currently named after presidents and other historical figures that the board considers part of the nation’s racist past.

López denied that the renaming initiative was a distraction from the reopening plan, which Superintendent Vincent Matthews told reporters clearly outlines the metrics that need to be in place before students reenter classrooms.

The steps listed on the district’s online dashboard include stockpiling three months of personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies, training staffers on new protocols and coming to an agreement with the teachers union about other practices. Reaching that consensus is a key part of the reopening strategy, Matthews said, not “a plan to make a plan” as Herrera alleged.

Shifting factors, including the possible resurgence of infections and the unpredictability of vaccine availability, make it impossible for the district to project an estimated reopening date, Matthews said.

Students will be able to reengage in in-person learning when all items on the dashboard are color-coded to show that they are complete, he said.

“When all of that is green, that’s when we’ll return,” Matthews said. “Including our last piece — including we have to have agreement on exactly what that safe return looks like.”

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