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As Battle Over Reopening San Francisco Schools Turns Ugly, Equity Emerges as Fault Line

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Mission High School in San Francisco. Public schools in the city have been closed to students since March. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

By suing its own school board and school district, San Francisco has transformed a painful and emotional argument over how to bring students back into classrooms into a legal battle.

Now, stakeholders — from parents to teachers to elected officials — are citing differing sets of statistics and experiences in support of their positions, with the issue of equity emerging as a fault line.

On Wednesday, the city filed a petition for a court order directing San Francisco Unified School District to prepare to bring students back into classrooms "now that it is possible to do so safely," City Attorney Dennis Herrera's office said.

"We're asking the court to order the school board and the school district to put in place a plan, a viable plan, to reopen safely," Herrera said at a joint news conference with Mayor London Breed. "If that plan is followed, schools will reopen."

The suit was blasted by SFUSD's superintendent, its school board president and the president of the teachers union, who said the lawsuit has been filed at the wrong time and for the wrong reason.

SFUSD President Vincent Matthews said the central complaint of the lawsuit, that the district doesn't have a legally required plan to reopen schools, is false.

"We absolutely have a comprehensive plan," he said at a press conference after the court action was announced. "And this plan has specific steps around health and safety guidelines, and what our processes would be and what in-person learning would look like for our ... student populations to return as soon as we can."

Matthews said the city is working with the health department to approve school sites for reopening.

Neither the district nor the city can unilaterally reopen schools, even with health department approval. The teachers union must also agree.

According to Susan Solomon, president of United Educators of San Francisco, the district and the union had been "getting closer to an agreement" on reopening, she said Wednesday.

"It’s unfortunate there is the distraction of this lawsuit," she said.

But Breed, who has been sharply critical of SFUSD for not bringing back students after nearly a year of educating them through distance learning, said the city had no choice but to act.

"Families right now aren't able to plan for their futures, they can't decide whether to accept a job offer because they don't know when they're going to be able to once again have their kids returned to the classroom," she said at the press conference Wednesday. "This is paralyzing our city and our residents, and I know that this is a drastic step, but I feel we are out of options at this point."

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What's the Holdup?

Proponents of physically returning students and teachers to schools say there is little justification for further delay.

At the press conference, Herrera ticked off reasons for SFUSD to invite its 54,000 students out from behind their home computers and back into schools.

He cited assessments by city and state health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that schools can safely reopen, and he held up in-person learning currently taking place at 113 private and parochial schools in the city as something that should be possible for public schools as well.

"Almost 16,000 students have returned to in-person school, and less than five cases of in-school transmission have been reported," Herrera said.

Data showing a widening achievement gap in the student population was also driving the city's decision to act, he stated.

"Black, Latino and other students of color in San Francisco, as well as those from low- income families, have lost significant academic ground compared with wealthier and white students during the pandemic," he said.

SFUSD's Return to School Safely plan originally envisioned a phased timeline for kids to come back, with the first wave of campuses reopening Jan. 25. But the plan was put on hold because, the district said, the union had made “significant new requests” that went beyond the safety protocols set by the city's Department of Public Health.

In an appearance on KQED's "Forum" radio program last week, Solomon, from the teachers union, defended that position, citing issues of equity.

"[W]e know that in San Francisco as well as in surrounding counties, the families and communities who are hardest hit by COVID — namely Black and brown communities — are seeing much higher rates [than] the rest of the neighborhoods and communities," Solomon said. "And we are emphasizing a lower community spread [before returning to schools] so that we can mitigate the effects of people being together who are in multigenerational households, who are experiencing ... higher rates of COVID."

Tara Ramos, a teacher-librarian at Sanchez Elementary School who has a 7-year-old daughter in a San Francisco school, says pointing to private school reopenings as a reason for public schools to follow suit is illogical.

"Students from private schools are not coming from communities where [coronavirus] spread is so high," she said.

But as the pandemic has dragged on, with little sign that children will see the inside of a classroom this school year, many parents have reached the end of their tether. The group Open Schools California has united parents from San Diego to Davis in an attempt to pressure stakeholders who have the power to take action to pull the trigger on reopening.

“After 11 months of school closures and a lack of political will from some state and local leaders to do what's best for school children, it is encouraging to see the City of San Francisco acknowledge the science and stand up for what's right and what we've known all along," said Megan Bacigalupi, an organizer with the group, in a statement responding to the lawsuit. "That schools can be reopened safely for students and teachers."

Tia Ghose, a journalist who lives in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood, says her two children have struggled with online learning. She and her husband recently pulled their third-grader out of public school and are now paying for in-person learning at a private school.

"The schools needed to be reopened yesterday," Ghose said.

She's not alone among Bay Area parents in reporting their kids struggling with going to school only online.

"We see high levels of anxiety,” Saun-Toy Trotter, a psychotherapist at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital in Oakland, told KQED in November. “High levels of depression.”

Her school-based clinic recorded more youth suicide attempts in the first four weeks of the pandemic than it did in the entire previous year, she said.

But not every parent agrees that a return to in-person instruction is a no-brainer. On Forum, Solomon pointed to an SFUSD survey that found relatively more Black and brown parents reporting they don't feel safe sending their kids back into classrooms.

That dynamic is playing out in other communities with high coronavirus transmission rates. Pecolia Manigo, a parent of three OUSD students and executive director of the Bay Area Parent Action Leadership Network, told KQED recently that many parents who are pushing for schools to reopen have not felt the effect of the pandemic the way that communities of color have.

"It's not in their families, is not in their neighborhood," said Manigo, who is Black. "It's an amorphous kind of idea and a threat. It's not even seen as a potential threat ... We are hearing families testing positive every week. And so it just feels different for us."

Rafael Moreno, a "third-generation-deep" Mission District native with a 5-year-old daughter attending elementary school in the neighborhood, said that schools need to bring kids back, "but they need to open when it’s safe for our students, our teachers and our community members. And that means vaccines for teachers and the support staff who make up the school community."

Figuring out different plans for students of diverse needs, including impoverished students and those with disabilities, can be "extremely resource-consuming," said Megan Caluza, a behavior analyst for SFUSD. One of the handful of educators on the district's working group on reopening, she says resumption of in-person learning requires more planning than people might realize.

The public health guidelines for reopening, she said, "aren't focused on equity, they're focused on broad public health understanding."

A Cacophany of Opinions

Still, while there are health disparities surrounding COVID-19 between different racial and economic groups, unequal responses to remote learning exist as well. As Herrera alluded to Wednesday, San Francisco public schools during the pandemic have experienced a higher rate of absenteeism and learning loss among Black, Latino, Asian and low-income students compared to those who are white.

Last year, during a Board of Supervisors' debate, outgoing Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer became irate over the city's lack of progress in bringing students back into classrooms, calling it racist.

"[F]or those of you who are currently public school parents, it is great that you have internet access. It is great that you have a home for your children, and a place for them to do online learning and distance learning," Fewer shouted. "But man, you talk to some of these parents, and you talk to some of these children, and you go to those community learning hubs, it would break your heart. This is a disservice. This is racist, and this is a disservice. It is one thing to say 'Black lives matter,' it's another thing to be saying 'while they're alive.' "

Amid this cacophony of opinions comes the lawsuit by the city. Will it succeed? Bill Koski, a professor of law and education at Stanford Law School, says courts are often hesitant to intervene on matters of school policy.

But, he added, the city's petition may represent uncharted territory.

"To my knowledge, this is a first, where a city has taken the step of filing a lawsuit against the local public schools in order to have them reopen during the pandemic," Koski said.

When Solomon, from the teachers union, was asked if she thought the city and district were close enough in negotiations to see a return to in-person learning this year, she said, "I think we can get an agreement, yes."

But it's unclear how the lawsuit will affect those talks. (Update Feb. 6: On Friday, school unions announced a proposal that would restart in-person classes when San Francisco is categorized under the red tier of the state's COVID-19 risk-assessment system, provided vaccines are made available to all staff who work in district buildings, among other additional safety measures. If vaccines are not available, the unions would return once the city enters the orange tier, one level up from red in terms of indicating transmission risk. San Francisco is currently in the purple tier, the level designating the most risk.)

Right now, the city's aggressive action has generated some bitterness among teachers. "I already have low pay in what is one of the most expensive cities in the world," said Max Raynard, who teaches at Clarendon Elementary School. He said the lawsuit made him think San Francisco leadership doesn't support teachers. "My raise each year is lower than the rate of inflation, which means I'm getting a pay cut each year. So I am doing this out of love of teaching and the students. And now people want to risk my life and the life of my loved ones?"

Ramos, the teacher at Sanchez Elementary who supports waiting to reopen, acknowledges her daughter has had trouble adapting to online classes.

"It hasn't been easy for us to keep her focused on what her teacher is asking us to do," she said.

But little moments of wonder still occur.

"She's been inspired by the way she's learning from her teachers and recording her own tutorials on the computer," Ramos said. She recalls her daughter exclaiming, "'Here's how to make a book, everybody!'"

All involved have one thing in common, at least. They wish for moments like that for every student.

Katie Orr, Julia McEvoy and Lesley McClurg contributed to this report.

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