SAN FRANCISCO – The number of suicidal children in San Francisco has hit a record high and health experts say it is clear that keeping public schools closed “is catalyzing a mental health crisis among school-aged children,” according to a lawsuit the city filed Thursday to push its school district to reopen classrooms.
San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera announced last week he was taking the dramatic step of suing the city’s own school district, which has kept its classrooms closed nearly a year. In the motion filed Thursday in San Francisco Superior Court, Herrera included alarming testimony from hospitals in the San Francisco Bay Area, doctors and parents on the emotional and mental harms of extended distance learning.
One mother, Allison Arieff, said she had recently found her 15-year-old daughter “curled up in a fetal position, crying, next to her laptop at 11 a.m.” Arieff said her daughter often cries in the middle of the day out of frustration and “is losing faith not just in SFUSD but in the world.”
Another mother, Lindsay Sink, has seen a “major regression” in her 7-year-old son who has “uncontrollable meltdowns that turn (the) whole house upside down.” Sink’s 10-year-old daughter is experiencing “depression and anger” and she fears her daughter’s “mental health will continue to suffer” until in-person learning resumes.
UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital has seen a 66% increase in the number of suicidal children in the emergency room, and a 75% increase in youth who required hospitalization for mental health services, the lawsuit said, quoting pediatricians, child psychiatrists and emergency room doctors.
Last month, UCSF Children’s Emergency Department at Mission Bay reported record high numbers of suicidal children seen and treated, according to the legal filing which did not provide detailed numbers of cases and hospital visits. It also quoted doctors citing an increase in anxiety, depression and eating disorders among children, consistent with national data.
“The medical evidence is clear that keeping public schools closed is catalyzing a mental health crisis among school-aged children in San Francisco,” Dr. Jeanne Noble, director of COVID Response for the UCSF Emergency Department.
San Francisco’s 52,000 public school students have been out of classes since March. Public health officials have allowed city schools to reopen since September but the district and teachers unions have not been able to finalize a deal on reopening classrooms.
“We wholeheartedly agree that students are better served with in-person learning,” the school district’s spokeswoman, Laura Dudnick, said Thursday. “Bringing students back to school in a large public school district is very complex and requires partnership.”
“We are eager for the city to make vaccines available to our staff,” Dudnick said.
The lawsuit is 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. It has prompted discussion in other cities including Los Angeles, where a city councilman is urging similar legal action to force schools open.
The lawsuit highlights the growing tension and infighting nationwide between politicians who insist it is safe to return to schools with proper safety precautions and teachers who are on the front lines and have not been able to get vaccinated yet.
Those in favor of reopening classrooms cite scientific data, including from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showing schools have reopened safely if proper safety precautions are in place such as masks, physical distancing and intensive cleaning.
The lawsuit notes that 114 of San Francisco's private, parochial and charter schools have reopened to 15,831 students and some 2,400 staff. Those schools have had fewer than five cases of suspected in-person transmission, it says.
Thursday’s motion expands upon previous allegations that school officials have failed to create a specific plan for reopening, as required by state law.
“Distance learning is a form of instruction; it is not school,” the lawsuit says, arguing that a child’s education goes beyond academic subjects and extends to a wide variety of emotional, social and developmental skills that can only be learned in-person. Keeping kids out of schools “constitutes a substantial violation of their constitutional rights.”