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San Francisco sues its own school district, demands restart of in-person instruction

In what could be the nation’s first such case, the city of San Francisco filed suit Wednesday against its own school district, demanding the restart of in-person instruction for more than 52,000 students.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera named the San Francisco Board of Education, the San Francisco Unified School District and Superintendent Vincent Matthews as defendants in what the city says is an unprecedented legal fight between overlapping government agencies over how to reopen classes during the pandemic.

Herrera said the board has had more than 10 months to develop a plan to get students back into classrooms and so far “they have earned an F.”

Students in districts just outside San Francisco and those enrolled in San Francisco private schools have all seen the inside of classrooms since the pandemic struck, unlike SFUSD pupils, the plaintiffs said.

“Having a plan to make a plan doesn’t cut it,” the city attorney added.

While some major metropolitan areas operate public schools from City Hall, virtually all California K-12 campuses come under the authority of local districts that are autonomous from city and county governments.

San Francisco City Hall and the San Francisco Unified School District, and its school board, operate independently of each other.

“This is not the path we would have chosen, but nothing matters more right now than getting our kids back in school,” Mayor London Breed said. “The city has offered resources and staff to get our school facilities ready and to support testing for our educators.”

Representatives for the National School Boards Association, an advocacy group for public schools and local boards of education, said they believe San Francisco’s lawsuit is the first civil action filed by a city against a district over Covid-19 closings.

“Reopening decisions are very, very difficult, but they call for collaboration, not litigation,” association CEO Anna Maria Chávez said in a statement.

“Everyone wants students back in schools as soon as it is safe, but it must be a community decision based on local data that involves all of the key players from teachers and administrators to parents and local health officials.”

San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Vincent Matthews called the city’s action a “frivolous lawsuit” and a “waste of time that we don’t have.”

“SFUSD has a very comprehensive plan with specific steps around health and safety and what in-person learning will look like for our focal student populations to return as soon as we can complete all the clearly laid out steps,” Matthews said.

Individual school board members also lashed out at city officials, accusing them of grandstanding.

“These lawsuits make good news headlines, but don’t do anything to help us remove the barriers that are keeping schools from opening,” Board of Education Vice President Alison Collins said.

Board President Gabriela Lopez said the legal action will slow down the reopening of schools.

“I don’t see how this is helpful when we are making progress while the county has failed to provide the necessary support with the testing and vaccines we need,” Lopez said. “It doesn’t benefit our community when the city continues to divide us.”

In recent weeks, the San Francisco Board of Education has been busy working on policies not directly tied to class re-openings.

Board members on Tuesday rolled out a proposal to drop academic considerations for enrollment at their nationally acclaimed high school.

And last week, the board voted to strip names from dozens of schools now bearing titles in honor of historical figures like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Junipero Serra and even current U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California.

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