Essential California: San Francisco sues its school system

A pedestrian walks below a sign for Dianne Feinstein Elementary School
A San Francisco elementary school.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, Feb. 4, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

Battles over the best way to safely get children back in classrooms have been playing out across the state for months. But for the first time in California, a city is suing its own school system to reopen.

On Wednesday, the city of San Francisco sued the San Francisco Board of Education and the San Francisco Unified School District for failing to come up with a sufficient plan for reopening.

[Read the story: “San Francisco, amid school renaming flap, sues its school district to reopen during pandemic” in the Los Angeles Times]


It is rare for a California city to sue one of its school districts, but city officials said they had been left with no other option. City Atty. Dennis Herrera, whose office is responsible for filing the lawsuit, said the overwhelming majority of private and parochial schools have welcomed students back to campuses since the city permitted in-person learning in September, but “not a single San Francisco public student has set foot in their classroom in 327 days.”

As my San Francisco-based colleague Maura Dolan reports, the lawsuit called the school district’s reopening plan woefully inadequate and out of compliance with requirements set by the state, including a mandate “to offer classroom-based instruction whenever possible.”

The lawsuit contends that the district’s reopening plan is “ambiguous empty rhetoric” that, after 10 months of closures, offers little more than “a plan to make a plan.”

San Francisco school officials, who held a subsequent news conference on Wednesday, accused the city of being unhelpful and complained they were not warned about the lawsuit.

“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, who does not control the school system, said. Breed had been publicly chastising local education leaders for months about keeping public schools closed while private ones have reopened, as Dolan explains in her story.

The mayor’s anger was compounded by the fact that the school board had, in her words, “alienated parents and made national news” for their decision to rename 44 campuses, despite not having a real plan in place to reopen those same campuses.


The goal of removing symbols of white supremacy and racism from campus names was certainly noble, but the district’s much-publicized renaming process at times verged toward self-parody. A spreadsheet documenting the renaming committee’s research process was riddled with factual errors and relied on frequent Wikipedia citations — a method of sourcing that would hardly pass muster in an SFUSD classroom.

The entry for Thomas Edison Charter Academy read, in full, “Thomas Edison had a foundness [sic] for electrocuting animals, and did a whole sting of animals including Topsy the Elephant, who was a well loved circus elephant during that time.” Edison’s elephantine sins were ultimately deemed permissible by the committee, but the names of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and sitting Sen. Dianne Feinstein were on the long list voted unworthy of gracing San Francisco schools.

San Francisco’s lawsuit was far from Wednesday’s only school reopening development. The same day, Gov. Gavin Newsom said he believes schools can begin to reopen even if all teachers are not yet vaccinated against COVID-19, provided that proper safety measures and supports are in place. The Biden administration took the same position Wednesday, with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Rochelle Walensky saying that vaccinating all teachers was “not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools” during a White House coronavirus briefing.

[Read the story: “Pressure builds over whether teachers need to be vaccinated before schools can reopen” in the Los Angeles Times]

United Teachers Los Angeles and other teachers unions have balked at resuming in-person classes before teachers are inoculated. While local health officials have the authority to allow teachers and other school staff to be vaccinated, many counties have not yet done so because of vaccine scarcity and regional variances in the pace of distribution.

As my colleagues report, the debate over reopening has become even more urgent as the state’s coronavirus infection rates and other health metrics trend in a positive direction — meaning state guidelines could soon allow for the reopening of campuses that have been closed since last March, in Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego counties, among others.


And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.


Sean Penn fires back at criticism over his COVID-19 vaccine site. After two people claiming to work for Penn’s nonprofit left anonymous comments at the bottom of a New York Times story critiquing operations at the Dodger Stadium vaccine site, Penn fired back with a nearly 2,200-word made-for-leaking-to-the-media-screed about their “broad-based cyber whining.” Los Angeles Times

Actor Sean Penn, left, Mayor Eric Garcetti and Gov. Gavin Newsom
Actor Sean Penn, left, Mayor Eric Garcetti and Gov. Gavin Newsom greet each other at a news conference held at the launch of mass COVID-19 vaccination site at Dodger Stadium on Jan. 15. Penn’s nonprofit CORE is assisting the city of Los Angeles at the Dodger Stadium site.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Tens of people you’ve never heard of have spoken, and the 2021 Golden Globe nominations are here. These are the biggest snubs and surprises of the year. Los Angeles Times

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Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) faces backlash for a post portraying teachers as being on vacation. “If you’re a Republican teacher and you’ve been told by your congressman that you’re on vacation and that you don’t have the best interests of students in mind — that upset a lot of people,” a teachers’ union rep said. Approximately 90% of teachers in Kern County are unionized and the majority are Republicans, according to the union. Bakersfield Californian

Former city school board member Sue Zwahlen is poised to become Modesto’s next mayor. Her opponent has conceded, but Zwahlen said she was waiting for more ballots to be counted from Tuesday’s election before declaring victory. Modesto Bee


“I was just bawling in my PPE.” Even as the surge fades, anguish remains for healthcare workers. Los Angeles Times


“My grandma’s survival in America defied all odds. Then Covid stole her from us.” Guardian reporter Sam Levin on his grandmother Debbie Hennessy, who died of COVID-19 complications in January. The Guardian

What do Palmdale, Hemet and Bakersfield have in common? In a state infamous for its expensive housing, they are among the cheapest cities for renters, according to a new report. CBS LA

A poem to to start your Thursday: “Men at Forty” by Donald Justice. August Poetry


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Los Angeles: sunny, 66. San Diego: partly sunny, 63. San Francisco: sunny, 57. San Jose: sunny, 59. Fresno: partly sunny, 57. Sacramento: sunny, 59.


Today’s California memory comes from Mary Mitchell Elgabalawi:

Arriving from Colorado with a toddler and another baby well on the way, we were housed for a few weeks at a beautiful hotel in Pasadena while my husband began his new job. I walked around the beautiful grounds and came across some trees with beautiful little orange balls hanging from them. I told my husband, a graduate student who was in his first days of employment at JPL, that they looked amazingly like oranges, very convincing replicas. Imagine my astonishment when I learned that they WERE indeed oranges! I was thrilled! Within the year we had bought our first home ... with many orange trees in our yard. We have lived there nearly 50 years, and are still awed by our amazing orange trees, which give us the best orange juice in the world.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.