SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — City officials turned up the legal pressure Tuesday on San Francisco Unified School District administrators to accelerate plans to reopen schools that have been shuttered for nearly a year in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera has amended his lawsuit against the school district to add three new allegations including violations of the California Constitution.

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The expanded lawsuit, filed Tuesday in San Francisco Superior Court, alleges that the school district is:

  • Violating students’ right under the California Constitution to attend public school
  • Discriminating against students on the basis of wealth in violation of the California Constitution’s equal protection clause
  • Violating the state law that requires school districts to “offer in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible”

Last week, California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said that schools in Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties can now reopen.

Many school districts in those counties have begun to reopen or will be reopening soon. Private schools in San Francisco have also reopened. Meanwhile, San Francisco public school students have been learning remotely since last March.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed said Tuesday that she does not take lightly using litigation to reopen the city’s public schools, and noted there are 15,000 students at private schools who are back in class because of the diligent work of the city’s Department of Public Health.

“The fact is, our Department of Public Health has put our public schools first. So when requested, because an application has to be submitted, we made analyzing the public schools our priority,” said Breed. “In fact, in San Francisco, we know there are about 113 private and parochial schools that are currently open. Our same Department of Public Health had to go in and analyze those schools for safety measures. And when provided the opportunity to do that for the public schools, we did that.”

Breed spoke about the lawsuit during a press conference Tuesday to update the city’s response to the pandemic. She said the tentative agreement between the school district and teachers’ unions to reopen schools threatens to torpedo in-class learning for the remainder of the school year and urged the parties to follow the parameters set by the health department.

“I trust them and I’m asking the school district to trust them. And I’m asking them to make some hard decisions. I’m worried that the tentative agreement proposed by the union will not get us to a place in the city where we will even open schools this year,” said Breed. “I want us to be honest about what we will and will not do, or what we can and cannot do. Our children are suffering. There’s no way I would ever support using the legal system to try and get our schools open if we were on a path of moving it forward, and if it weren’t for the DPH telling us that it is safe to do so.”

Breed said public health officials have already approved several public elementary schools to reopen — Alvarado, Glenn Park, John Muir, Lawton, Sunset and Cobb.

“There’s no way they (the public health department) would have cleared our ability to open public or private schools if it were not for the need to keep everyone safe,” Breed said.

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With the average daily case rate per 100,000 residents for all four counties now under 25 for at least five consecutive days, the state has permitted each county to reopen all K-6 schools if they choose to do so.

“Our public school families are dealing with mental health and education crises on top of a pandemic,” Herrera said in a news release. “It’s not sustainable. That’s why we have gone to court. I took this step only as a last resort. The reality is 54,000 public school children are suffering across our city.”

Named in the city’s lawsuit are the San Francisco Board of Education, the San Francisco Unified School District and Superintendent Vincent Matthews.

Over the weekend, the teachers union and district officials reached a tentative agreement on protocols to reopen the schools. In the deal struck, teachers and staff will return to campus when San Francisco reaches the Red Tier and teachers are vaccinated.

The school district has created a Frequently Asked Questions page on its website to provide some answers regarding what the tentative agreement will mean for both teachers and families.

On Tuesday, Breed and public health officials said that starting on February 24 the city will be moving to Phase 1B with vaccinations being given to education and childcare workers.

But Herrera said just striking a deal was not enough.

“We’re pleased the school district and its unions finally seem to be making some progress on reopening, but it’s not nearly enough,” Herrera said. “There are more questions than answers at this point. We have not seen an agreement, but our understanding is that it still doesn’t cover classroom instruction. Which kids will be able to go back? When will they be able to? How many days a week? How many hours a day? These are just some of the questions the district hasn’t answered for parents.”

The weekend deal did include several provisions that needed to be met before in-class instruction could begin. Those key components were:

  • District-provided masks and PPE for students and staff
  • Socially distanced classrooms and workspaces
  • Regular and reliable testing for students and staff
  • Health screenings
  • Ventilation upgrades and monitoring
  • Safe and effective enhanced COVID cleaning protocol
  • Robust contact tracing and plan with County Department of Public Health

Herrera said he intends to file a motion for an emergency court order later this week.

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“Just sticking with the status quo and hoping the district came up with an effective plan wasn’t working,” he said. “Hopefully the prospect of court scrutiny will focus the district’s attention like nothing else could have. Let’s get this fixed.”