City officials say the San Francisco Unified School District’s plans to reopen are vague and “woefully inadequate.”<ins> (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)</ins>

City officials say the San Francisco Unified School District’s plans to reopen are vague and “woefully inadequate.” (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

City sues school district over lack of progress on reopening

School board president calls lawsuit ‘political theater,’ says it could impede efforts

San Francisco city officials filed suit against the school district in an effort to force classrooms to reopen.

The suit filed by the City Attorney’s Office Wednesday alleges that the San Francisco Unified School District’s reopening plan is “woefully inadequate” and doesn’t meet state requirements to offer in-person learning when possible. After the suit is filed in San Francisco Superior Court, City Attorney Dennis Herrera will seek an emergency court order on Feb. 11 compelling the district to act.

“It’s a shame it has come to this,” Herrera said in a statement. “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.”

Superintendent Vincent Matthews, however, disputed the idea that there has not been a plan. He added he was supposed to be at a site assessment with health officials Wednesday morning, a needed step to obtain an in-person waiver.

“Instead I am here to address a frivolous lawsuit that wastes time and energy from my perspective,” Matthews said. “To turn on those of us trying to solve this is not helpful whatsoever. To say we don’t have a plan is absolutely incorrect.”

SFUSD originally planned to begin bringing its youngest students and those with disabilities back to the classroom on Jan. 25 if health indicators were met. While other districts in the state have also postponed reopening plans, citing the critically high coronavirus spread, SFUSD attributed its own delay to lack of labor agreements.

The district now plans to begin bringing priority students back no earlier than March 25, and negotiations with unions are ongoing. Middle school and high school students are unlikely to return to the classroom this year at all, officials have said.

The district must also go through a request for proposal process for testing services after its previous partner, Curative, was deemed a risk for false negatives by federal officials. State reopening requirements now include surveillance testing for students, depending on the level of spread, adding another logistical hurdle.

Despite this, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Gov. Gavin Newsom both said on Wednesday that schools can safely reopen even if all teachers aren’t vaccinated.

When asked by the Examiner if there had been communication about the suit before deciding to file, Mayor London Breed said she is in regular communication with district officials. Herrera said he did not meet with the district beforehand.

“Quite frankly, I didn’t think it was worthwhile considering the lack of progress that’s been made over the last several months and despite all of the continual discussions that were happening with The City and school district,” Herrera said at a press conference.

Breed added that The City has repeatedly offered support, including $15 million in funding for the district included in the city budget. DPH had expanded testing access to school employees and offered funding for surveillance testing and contact tracing in December before Curative fell through, a city spokesperson said.

“We don’t know what else we can do and that’s what the problem is,” Breed said. “Now it’s time for us to start using whatever tools we have, whether it’s a lawsuit or legislation or what have you to address this issue and sadly, take matters into our own hands. We’re here to work with them.”

While city departments have provided support and guidance, school officials have long said the district is on its own as far as conducting testing and contact tracing for staff and students. School Board President Gabriela Lopez called the lawsuit “petty” and “political theater.”

“The county has really failed to provide the necessary support with testing and vaccines. Those are the kinds of things we’re struggling with,” Lopez said. “Instead, SFUSD must go through a competitive bidding process.”

“Filing a lawsuit is not going to speed things up, I think it’s going to do the opposite,” Lopez said. “It doesn’t benefit our community to have the school district and city fighting. We’re going to get farther by working together rather than playing politics. It’s an embarrassing day for San Francisco.”

Returning to in-person learning has been a contentious issue, with unions pushing for delaying for safety reasons, while parents and elected officials say studies show low transmission risk of COVID-19 in schools. (Shandana Qazi/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Returning to in-person learning has been a contentious issue, with unions pushing for delaying for safety reasons, while parents and elected officials say studies show low transmission risk of COVID-19 in schools. (Shandana Qazi/Special to S.F. Examiner)

The suit comes after an SFUSD report found that attendance and learning disparities have increased under distance learning. Black, Latino, English learners, special education students, and high school students were the most disengaged, while Black and Pacific Islander high school students showed the most learning loss, on par with national trends, according to the report.

More than 15,800 students have returned to in-person learning across 113 private and parochial schools, and The City is operating learning hubs with the Department of Children, Youth and Their Families. Fewer than five cases of in-school transmission have been reported to the Department of Public Health from those sites.

“While we thank City Attorney Dennis Herrera for pursuing the legal action that could help get our kids safely back in school, we are so sad that it has come to this point,” said Meredith Willa Dodson, a parent and co-founder of Decreasing the Distance, a group that’s advocated for reopening schools. “We urge SFUSD — its administration, labor partners, and elected Board of Education Commissioners — to do right by the more than 55,000 public school children in San Francisco. Too many of them are struggling with distance learning.”

District unions have stood firm on safety standards that included student testing even before the state made it a requirement. A joint statement from SFUSD and the San Francisco Labor Council denounced the lawsuit, calling it “disheartening” and “shameful.”

“DPH said we can’t help you with [testing],” said Susan Solomon, president of United Educators of San Francisco. “One of my first thoughts after being shocked and disappointed at this lawsuit is, what example does it set for our students? You don’t sit with people, you don’t try to work it out, you file a lawsuit. It’s counter-intuitive.”

imojadad@sfexaminer.com

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