A parent collective, Decreasing the Distance, held a march at City Hall on Saturday Feb. 6, 2021 to call for schools to reopen safely. (Samantha Laurey/Special to SF Examiner)

A parent collective, Decreasing the Distance, held a march at City Hall on Saturday Feb. 6, 2021 to call for schools to reopen safely. (Samantha Laurey/Special to SF Examiner)

City attorney alleges SFUSD violating students’ constitutional rights by not reopening classrooms

Expanded lawsuit argues school district discriminating on basis of wealth

City Attorney Dennis Herrera on Tuesday amended a lawsuit against the San Francisco Unified School District, adding allegations that the district is violating the state constitution as well as state law by keeping students out of the classroom.

The lawsuit, filed last Wednesday, alleges that the district’s reopening plan is “woefully inadequate” and doesn’t meet state requirements to offer in-person learning when possible.

The amendments added this week now allege that the district is violating students’ rights under the California Constitution to attend public school, discriminating against students on the basis of wealth in violation of the state constitution’s equal protection clause, and violating a state law requiring districts to “offer in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible.” Senate Bill 98, signed into law last year, set conditions on distance learning that specified districts must offer in-person instruction “to the greatest extent possible.”

Herrera has said he also plans to seek a preliminary injunction this week that would compel the district to take action.

The amendments come after the school district and unions announced on Sunday that they had reached a tentative agreement on safety standards for a return to the classroom. However that deal specifies that teachers will not return until The City reaches the “red” COVID-19 risk tier, and even then only if vaccinations are available to all school employees. Further details regarding working and classroom instruction hours, class sizes and other logistics remain to be ironed out.

“We’re pleased the school district and its unions finally seem to be making some progress on reopening, but it’s not nearly enough,” Herrera said in a statement. “There are more questions than answers at this point.”

District officials have said they have a plan to reopen, but require assistance with vaccinations and testing. However the plans they have presented focus largely on younger students and those with disabilities or economic disadvantages. District officials have said they do not have space for more than 15,000 students to return to class, given social distancing requirements, and recently acknowledged that it is unlikely middle and high school students will return to the classroom this school year at all.

The school district has been under growing political pressure and scrutiny as its students approach nearly a year of distance learning. Parent groups and political leaders including Mayor London Breed, meanwhile, have been critical of the school board’s efforts to advance other policy changes, including renaming schools and reworking the admissions process at Lowell High School, at a time when many feel reopening should be its top priority.

Herrera noted that achievement gaps and disparities for some students are widening, and many families report mental health and educational impacts due to distance learning.

“I took this step only as a last resort,” Herrera said. “The reality is 54,000 public school children are suffering across our City. Just sticking with the status quo and hoping the district came up with an effective plan wasn’t working. Hopefully the prospect of court scrutiny will focus the district’s attention like nothing else could have. Let’s get this fixed.”

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