Herrera files for emergency court order to open SF public schools

Citing mental health harm to children, Herrera notes that failing to provide in-person instruction when it’s safe to do so violates the California Constitution and state law

City Attorney Dennis Herrera

SAN FRANCISCO (Feb. 11, 2021) — City Attorney Dennis Herrera today filed a motion for a preliminary injunction against the San Francisco Unified School District and its leadership. If granted, the motion would compel the school district to reopen public schools as allowed by public health officials.

A hearing on the motion is set for March 22, 2021.

SFUSD has kept public schools in San Francisco closed for more than 330 days, even though health officials have allowed schools in San Francisco to be open for in-person instruction since September. There are 114 private and parochial schools open. More than 15,000 private and parochial school students have been attending class for months in San Francisco with no significant COVID-19 outbreaks. Students in neighboring Marin County have had a combined 1 million in-person school days — without a single COVID-19 transmission from student to teacher — since reopening in the fall.

The scientific consensus of federal, state and local health officials is that it is safe to return to in-person instruction with basic precautions, like masks, physical distance, handwashing and proper ventilation. Vaccines are not a prerequisite.

“Distance learning is not the same thing as school, not even close,” Herrera said. “We know that teachers are doing heroic work every day trying to keep kids engaged and learning. So are overburdened parents. Even with all of those tremendous efforts, almost a year of being isolated from classmates, friends and teachers is taking a terrifying toll on these kids. It must stop. It’s time to get back in class. Desperate parents are providing heartbreaking accounts of what is happening to their children. Mental health experts report that kids of all ages are experiencing severe mental health problems: depression, anxiety, self-harming behavior, suicidal thoughts. And yet, public schools in San Francisco remain shut. It’s unconscionable, it’s unlawful and it must end.”

The motion filed in San Francisco Superior Court today maintains that SFUSD’s failure to reopen schools when it is safe to do so violates children’s state constitutional right to attend school and the California Education Code, which requires school districts to “offer in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible.”

Each of these violations independently warrants the granting of a preliminary injunction to open public schools.

As Herrera’s filing details, remote learning is having horrific mental health consequences for children. According to the Director of COVID Response for the UCSF Emergency Department, Dr. Jeanne A. Noble, “[t]he medical evidence is clear that keeping public schools closed is catalyzing a mental health crisis among school-aged children in San Francisco.”

Local emergency physicians, pediatricians, and pediatric psychiatrists report a significant increase in children of all ages demonstrating anxiety, depression, eating disorders, social withdrawal, and suicidal ideation.  UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital of Oakland has seen a 66% increase in the number of suicidal children in the emergency room, a doubling of adolescents hospitalized for eating disorders, and a 75% increase in youth seeking mental health services who required immediate hospitalization.

In January 2021, UCSF Children’s Emergency Department at Mission Bay reported the highest number of suicidal children seen and treated in the emergency department on record.

These shocking statistics are reflected in the lived experiences of children and families. Court declarations filed by public school parents detail how a 5-year-old child has “regressed to hitting,” a 7-year-old now has “uncontrollable meltdowns that turn [the] whole house upside down,” 8- and 9-year-olds are suffering “anxiety, distress, anger, depression and the loss of the love of learning,” and a 15-year-old was found “curled up in a fetal position, crying, next to her laptop at 11 a.m.”

The case is: City and County of San Francisco v. San Francisco Board of Education et al., San Francisco Superior Court case number CPF-21-517352, filed Feb. 3, 2021. Additional documentation from the case is available on the City Attorney’s website at: sfcityattorney.org

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