Parents and students gather for a “Zoom In” event at Midtown Terrace Park school to protest the slow progress toward returning city school to in-person learning. (Sebastian Miño-Bucheli / Special to S.F. Examiner)

Parents and students gather for a “Zoom In” event at Midtown Terrace Park school to protest the slow progress toward returning city school to in-person learning. (Sebastian Miño-Bucheli / Special to S.F. Examiner)

Judge rejects city attorney’s request for a court order on school reopening

Lawsuit argued school district violated state law by failing to return students to classrooms

A San Francisco judge on Thursday denied the City Attorney’s request for an injunction compelling public schools to reopen.

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ethan Schulman denied the preliminary injunction, ruling it had been made “largely moot by recent developments” and that it would be “impermissibly vague and judicially unmanageable.” City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed suit in early February before San Francisco Unified School District set a reopening date for April 12.

“No purpose would be served in ordering the district what is has already committed to do,” Schulman wrote in his ruling. “The court is not in a position to dictate or oversee the district’s decisions regarding a large public school system comprising over 50,000 students and nearly 10,000 teachers, staff, and administrators at 130 schools.”

The City Attorney’s office had argued that SFUSD has been in violation of state and local health orders to provide in-person instruction “to the greatest extent possible” as instructed by state lawmakers. Schulman appeared reluctant to issue the injunction at a hearing on Monday, however, and said in his ruling that recently-signed Assembly Bill 86, in offering more funds to schools that reopen earlier, does not mandate reopening.

“It’s disheartening for us and for all of the San Francisco families who have suffered under a year of remote learning,” Herrera said in a statement on Thursday. “Today’s decision was not a victory, but the court recognized the tremendous toll that being unable to return to school has taken on children. As the court acknowledged, there can be no doubt as to the adverse effects of the past year on students, families, teachers and school staff.”

Herrera added that the case isn’t over and his office is “evaluating all of our legal options going forward.”

“This lawsuit has served as nothing but a superficial distraction from the work to safely return San Francisco’s public school students to in-person learning,” Superintendent Vincent Matthews said in a statement. “The court noted the scope of this work, including the detailed agreements we have entered into with our labor partners regarding health and safety standards and instruction as well as the timeline we have set forth to return students to campuses.”

Sara Eisenberg, deputy city attorney and chief of strategic advocacy, also emphasized on Monday that SFUSD has not shared plans to bring back middle and high school students outside specific priority populations. SFUSD attorney Suzanne Solomon responded that while those plans are not yet public, the district is working on it.

Matthews told school board members on Tuesday that bringing back one grade of the older students by May 15 would make the district eligible to receive some $15 million to $18 million in AB 86 funds — but that shifting gears to focus on doing so would come at the expense of bringing back all focal populations by April 26. He did not say when a middle school or high school plan could be introduced.

“In every way we looked at it if we went that route…to bring back focal populations would be delayed,” Matthews said. “That shift can happen. It just means shifting resources from where we have right now.”

Another question that arose in court was over whether SFUSD would adapt to new state health guidelines that recently slashed distancing requirements from 6 feet to 3 feet, making it theoretically possible for more kids to return full-time. While SFUSD attorney Solomon said on Monday that the agreement with United Educators of San Francisco requires parties to meet should health guidelines change, SFUSD general counsel Danielle Houck told the school board on Tuesday that may not be the case.

“What we have agreed to do with elementary schools is we will try to accomplish, 6 feet of distance, and if that’s not possible we will go with 4 feet,” Houck said on Tuesday. Four feet was the lowest required classroom distance under previous guidance.

SFUSD will welcome back its first priority students on April 12.

This is a breaking news story. Check back for updates.

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