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San Francisco, amid school renaming flap, sues its school district to reopen during pandemic

San Francisco Mayor London Breed
San Francisco Mayor London Breed has been chastising local education leaders for months about keeping public schools closed while private ones have reopened.
(Kevin N. Hume / Associated Press)

San Francisco resorted to the “drastic step” of suing its own school district Wednesday to try to force the reopening of public schools for in-person learning.

“It’s a shame it has come to this,” said City Atty. Dennis Herrera, whose office is seeking an emergency order to compel the district to act.

“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,” Hererra added. “So far they have earned an F.”

The litigation shows the deep divides in San Francisco over continued school closures and the actions of its elected school board amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

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It is extremely rare for a city to sue one of its school districts, but Mayor London Breed said nothing else has seemed to work. She has been publicly chastising local education leaders for months about keeping public schools closed while private ones have reopened.

The dispute became particularly heated when the district spent months on efforts to rename dozens of schools with alleged associations with oppression and racism, soliciting new names for schools named after George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, and even Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

The effort sparked national attention, much of it scornful, and many district parents were resentful.

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A recent column in the San Francisco Chronicle noted that Spanish conquerors gave the city its moniker. “While we are at it, how about renaming San Francisco?” the column said in its headline.

The San Francisco Unified Board of Education voted 6-1 to change a third of its school names for their associations with racism, oppression and colonization.

Breed said the failure of schools to come up with an adequate reopening plan while devoting resources to name changes has been “infuriating.”

“I know this is a drastic step,” Breed said Wednesday, announcing the lawsuit, “but I feel we are out of options at this point.”

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Breed has complained about the effort to rename more than 40 schools at a time when they are closed.

“In the midst of this once-in-a-century challenge, to hear that the district is focusing energy and resources on renaming schools — schools that they haven’t even opened — is offensive,” Breed said in October.

Herrera suggested the litigation might force the district and school unions to hammer out an agreement to reopen schools, which have been shuttered since March. The San Francisco teachers’ union could not be reached for comment.

San Francisco school officials, who held their own news conference after Breed’s, accused the city of being unhelpful and complained they were not warned about the lawsuit.

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Supt. Vincent Matthews said the city and the school district should be working together, not embroiled in a lawsuit. He suggested it would take a combination of vaccines and a reduction in the virus for school unions to be willing to return staff to classrooms.

“We have to agree with our labor partners around what a safe return looks like,” Matthews said.

The harms of ongoing closures outweigh the safety risks of carefully managed classrooms, according to a regional pediatrics association. Some experts take a different view.

Board of Education President Gabriela López said the project to identify schools for renaming to combat white supremacy had nothing to do with keeping them closed for in-person learning and did not divert attention away from reopening efforts.

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School officials have been working for months to try to make classroom learning safe for students and staff, she said, but the coronavirus has forced the district to tread carefully.

“The fear is very real,” she said.

Lobbing a volley back to Breed, López suggested the city should examine itself, not the school district. “City Hall is shuttered,” she noted.

López also said the city has not offered enough support in the form of vaccines and testing to the schools.

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The lawsuit, filed in San Francisco Superior Court, 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.” Herrera’s office will seek a preliminary injunction next week to force the district to prepare for in-person instruction.

Breed has no direct control over the school district, which is run by an independently elected school board, but as the leader of the city, she has been criticized for the school closures. The city has done safety inspections of the schools and has offered other help to get in-person learning started.

She said data show that Black, Latino, and Asian students, especially those who are low-income, have fared worse than white and wealthier students during the distanced learning.

San Francisco has been heralded for its management of the pandemic, adopting a go-slow approach on reopening, undertaking expansive testing and curbing infections.

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If the city’s Public Health Director Dr. Grant Colfax, one of the most cautious public health officials in the country, says that schools can reopen, there should be no doubt about safety, Breed said.

The city permitted the reopening of schools for in-person learning in September. Since then, 113 private, independent and parochial schools in San Francisco have been teaching students in the classroom. Fewer than five cases of in-school transmissions have been reported, according to the suit.

In Marin County, nearly 90% of schools have resumed classroom teaching since the fall, with nine cases of suspected in-school transmission of the virus.

According to the lawsuit, the state required schools during this academic year to establish plans for reopening classrooms whenever possible, but those submitted by the San Francisco district were inadequate. The suit calls for a court order requiring the district to submit more detailed plans.

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The United Educators of San Francisco described the suit as a “frivolous and distracting” attack and accused Breed and Herrera of deciding to “politicize this difficult moment.”

“Political grandstanding and pointing fingers does nothing to safely return our educators and students back to the classroom,” the union said.


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