San Francisco sues own school district in a bid to stop children becoming 'Zoom-bies'

54,000 children in San Francisco have been shut out of school for months  - AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
54,000 children in San Francisco have been shut out of school for months - AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

The city of San Francisco took a dramatic step Wednesday in its effort to get children back into public school classrooms, suing its own school district to try to force open the doors amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The lawsuit was the first of its kind in California and possibly the country, as school systems come under increasing pressure from parents and politicians to end virtual learning. Teachers unions in many large school districts, including San Francisco, say they won't go back to classrooms until they are vaccinated.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera, with the backing of Mayor London Breed, announced he had sued the San Francisco Board of Education and the San Francisco Unified School District as a last resort to salvage what's left of the academic year. They say it's safe to reopen schools.

The school district did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment. Teachers are next in line for the Covid-19 vaccine, and some have started to get shots in rural areas.

Coronavirus USA Spotlight Chart - cases default
Coronavirus USA Spotlight Chart - cases default

"Not a single San Francisco public school student has set foot in their classroom in 347 days," Mr Herrera said at a news conference, calling it shameful and also unlawful. "More than 54,000 San Francisco schoolchildren are suffering. They are being turned into Zoom-bies by online school. Enough is enough."

The lawsuit says school administrators are violating a state requirement that districts adopt a clear plan "to offer classroom-based instruction whenever possible" during the pandemic. The state says the plan has to be in place, particularly for students who have experienced significant learning loss due to school closures.

The lawsuit is seeking a court order to require schools to prepare to offer in-person instruction and file a detailed "appropriate plan to show that they are ready to do so," Mr Herrera said.

San Francisco schools have been allowed to reopen since September, a statement from Mr Herrera said, noting that nearly 90 per cent of schools in neighboring Marin County, including public schools, have resumed in-person instruction and that 113 private and parochial schools in San Francisco also are open.

"This is not the path we would have chosen, but nothing matters more right now than getting our kids back in school," Breed said in the statement. "Our teachers have done an incredible job of trying to support our kids through distance learning, but this isn't working for anyone. And we know we can do this safely."

Mr Herrera said the district's current plan "is ambiguous, empty rhetoric. It is a plan to make a plan. It is legally insufficient."

"So far, they have earned an F," Mr Herrera said, referring to the school district and its Board of Education.

He plans to file a motion Feb. 11 asking San Francisco Superior Court to issue an emergency order. If granted, the order would require the district to formulate a reopening plan. The statement said such emergency orders, also known as preliminary injunctions, can only come after a lawsuit is filed.