Erika Foots is a single mother raising five children, including her niece and nephew, in Bayview-Hunters Point. Her eldest child is enrolled in private school and has been attending in-person classes since November, but the other four—ages 11, 9, 9 and 6—are in public school, part of the San Francisco Unified School District, or SFUSD. They haven't set foot in a classroom since last March, and according to a Jan. 26 Board of Education meeting, it’s unlikely that they will before summer.
For parents like Foots, this week's school board decision to rename 44 public schools in San Francisco has her questioning the district’s priorities.
“Why are you guys trying to rename schools when we have children who are failing or who are not adjusting correctly to the pandemic?” asked Foots. “Why aren’t we talking about those things?”
Foots, a native San Franciscan, is a full-time student herself, majoring in criminal justice at San Francisco State University. Between studying for her own classes (which she does once the kids are in bed) and helping her children with remote learning and homework, Foots says she gets about 4 to 5 hours of sleep a night.
“Being cooped up in the house is very stressful. Sometimes I go out in my backyard and I scream, just to get it out,” she said.
Ten months into the pandemic, San Francisco’s schools remain closed, and there is no firm timetable for when students can return. The debate around reopening schools has been a controversial issue for parents, children and educators for months, but has become more intense since vaccines were added to the equation. The opacity surrounding school reopening has led to frustration and confusion with the SFUSD.
“As far as my children go, I feel that the school district is pretty much failing them,” Foots said.
Community Learning Hubs Offer Pathway Forward For Some
Foots got some relief in January when all four of her SFUSD-enrolled children began attending a city-run community learning hub, one of 78 spread across San Francisco.
The hubs (unaffiliated with the SFUSD) are run by the Department of Children, Youth and Their Families and the SF Recreation and Parks Department. They were launched by the city in September to help at-need children, like those who are homeless, in foster care or living in public housing, learn in a structured and supervised environment.
Ninety-six percent of the 2,000 children currently enrolled in these hubs are students of color.
“They get support to log into their Zooms, they get reminded to take breaks, they get to participate in enrichment activities, they get to eat their healthy meals and they get to be with their peers and caring adults,” said Dr. Maria Su, executive director of San Francisco's Department of Children, Youth and Their Families.
To an outsider, the hubs look much like a school classroom, except that they’re not located in school buildings and the staff are employees of various San Francisco nonprofits like the Boys and Girls Club, YMCA and Salvation Army.
“These are amazing nonprofit partners who have stepped up,” said Su.
The hubs have not reported any COVID-19 outbreaks, prompting San Francisco Mayor London Breed to say the program should serve as a model for reopening public schools.
For Foots, having her children return to these makeshift schoolrooms has been a huge boon.
“It relieves a lot of pressure and [my children] get the extra support they need. They’re a lot happier,” she said.
Foots is satisfied with the safety precautions followed by the hubs, and says she would send her children back for in-person learning if the school district followed the same safety precautions. The hubs (as well as the more than 110 open private schools in San Francisco) follow safety guidelines laid out by the San Francisco Department of Public Health, including mask-wearing and social distancing.
Roadblocks & Sluggish Negotiations
As part of a phased reopening, SFUSD was supposed to open schools on Jan. 25 for 358 preschoolers and students with moderate to severe learning disabilities. However, that plan failed because consensus couldn't be reached with labor unions—including those representing teachers, school administrators, engineers, technicians and public service workers.
Now, school district officials say the earliest those same students could return is March 25 (though they’re not committing to any set date). Middle schoolers and high schoolers are unlikely to see the inside of a school building until after the summer, according to SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews.
The major roadblock is reaching agreement on safety measures, with SFUSD unions calling for guidelines that exceed those set by San Francisco’s Department of Public Health and instead favoring those that adhere to CDC, OSHA and California Department of Public Health standards.
SFUSD unions are calling for PPE, social distancing, adequate ventilation at all school and work sites, a “robust” contact tracing and surveillance testing protocol, free rapid-testing for COVID-19 and vaccinations for all school staff, which includes teachers and paraeducators. SFUSD unions are also proposing that no students or staff should return to in-person learning until San Francisco has been in the state’s “moderate” orange tier of community spread for 14 consecutive days. San Francisco is currently in the purple tier.
“This differs from the plan adopted by the Board of Education and permitted under state and local health orders, which allow schools in counties rated in the most restrictive purple tier to reopen for in-person instruction if they receive a waiver,” said the SFUSD in a December press release explaining why the district couldn’t reopen as planned on Jan. 25.
SFUSD unions have also made headlines for their request to equip every school toilet with a lid to prevent the spread of COVID-19. According to reporting by the SF Chronicle, however, “none of the millions of cases worldwide has been connected to a toilet.”
Still, the gulf between what is considered safe and what makes teachers feel safe to return to in-person learning illustrates a chasm that neither the district nor the unions have yet been able to bridge.
Labor negotiations are marked as “in progress” at 33 percent complete on the SFUSD’s reopening dashboard. No headway has been made since Oct. 25.
“We don't want just minimum standards because of concerns that there can be cases of COVID-19 with minimum standards,” said Susan Solomon, president of the United Educators of San Francisco, or UESF, which represents about 6,500 teachers and paraeducators.
"We've never spent this much time on bargaining as we are right now. And that's the right thing to be doing. Let's make sure that the school district is ready with things that are needed for safety and that we are prepared safety-wise. We want to get this done," added Solomon. "Many of the educators who belong to UESF are parents themselves. I'm a grandparent. It's hard. It's just a terrible situation, and we have to protect physical health."
But as of Jan. 22, Solomon said the toilet lid proposal remains on the table and “is a subject we will continue to discuss in good faith,” though she added it’s less important than achieving proper ventilation in school buildings, which remains a work in progress. The district has only completed 40% of the necessary repairs and installations needed, according to its school reopening dashboard.
In a Board of Education meeting on Jan. 26, Superintendent Matthews emphasized that the school district is working in tandem with the unions to reach an agreement.
“‘We’ the district and ‘we’ our labor partners all together have to agree on what safe looks like. So that's what the ‘we’ is. It's not just the unions. It's not on just the unions. It's on us as a district to come to… agreement around what safe really is,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Board of Education, which meets bi-monthly on Tuesdays for seven or eight-hour marathon sessions, has had entire meetings where reopening hasn’t been on the agenda, prompting frustration and confusion among parents who feel that a return to in-person learning isn’t being treated as a high-priority item.
“I think it’s an absolute slap in the face to all the families and students of this district that you don’t even have reopening on the agenda. We’re ten months into this pandemic, and your current ‘plan’ is to reassess your plan?” said one parent during public comment on Jan. 12.
A Divisive Issue
Yet, San Francisco’s health care professionals and educators remain divided on the question of school reopening.
Prominent members of the city’s health care community have weighed in and say it’s time for students to return to the classroom. In a January op-ed, UCSF department leaders called for schools in San Francisco to provide in-person learning by Feb. 1, citing the detrimental impact of long term closures on children. In December, more than 60 of the city's pediatricians wrote a letter calling on schools to return to in-person learning as soon as possible, saying the current situation “is resulting in a mental health crisis for children."
On Jan. 26, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote that children should be brought back into classrooms as soon as possible, but noted that local officials must be willing to close indoor dining and bars to help keep community infection rates low. The researchers also wrote that the “preponderance of available evidence” indicates safe reopening can occur with proper social distancing and mask-wearing.
Two SFUSD reports about the impact of COVID-19 on students’ academic performances in math and reading reveal deep inequalities resulting from remote learning. These are consistent with national findings. In reading, for grades 4 and 5, white and multi-racial students were the only student groups that performed better than predicted during distance learning. Black, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, Hispanic, Asian and Filipino students showed evidence of learning loss.
In math, similar group differences were observed. Black and Pacific Islander high school students saw learning losses whereas white students saw no change. According to the report, “Learning loss was calculated by comparing actual student growth from Fall 2019 to Fall 2020 (matched students) with a predicted growth (using the trends from the past three years of assessment data for similar groups of students).”
Educator John Lisovsky, an SFUSD teacher at Francisco Middle School in North Beach, feels students’ pain on distance learning but does not think now is the time to return to the classroom.
“We all are frustrated with distance learning. It's not as good as learning in person, but it is necessary until it's safe,” said Lisovsky, who credits Solomon for saving “hundreds of lives in San Francisco” through the union’s efforts.
“Opening with this amount of widespread community spread would be the height of irresponsibility,” Lisovsky said.
Still, some cities have proven it can be done. New York City has brought back 190,000 children to its classrooms. In early January, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “the safest place to be in New York City is our public schools.” (The cumulative positive test rate in New York schools is 0.53 percent.) Nearby Marin County is serving around 17,000 students for in-person learning. So far, there have been seven suspected in-school transmissions since that district’s schools began reopening in September. Others, like the Los Angeles Unified School District, have floated turning school sites into mass vaccination centers to speed up the school reopening process.
Solomon said vaccinations are a “step forward but not a magic bullet” for reopening and that they will only work alongside the unions’ other safety demands.
“We cannot safely and fully return to face-to-face instruction without putting our public school workers at the top of the (vaccine) priority list,” Claudia Briggs, a spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association, told the SF Chronicle. “But remember, right now there’s no research evidence that the vaccine alone eliminates or reduces transmissions. It reduces illness.”
It’s also unclear when exactly teachers in San Francisco will be vaccinated. The city is currently still in Phase 1a of the vaccine distribution process, which prioritizes health care workers and those 65 and older, and applies to more than 210,000 San Franciscans. At the current rate of vaccinations, it could be weeks before educators are even eligible for the shot. (Experts anticipate that vaccines won’t be available to children until six to 12 months from now.)
Adding to the confusion is the State’s plan for switching to an age-based eligibility system after completing Phase 1a, which could move educators further down the list.
“I've heard nothing from SFUSD on when I'm going to be vaccinated or the DPH or the city of San Francisco or the state of California,” said Lisovsky. “It's very important that all educators get the vaccine as soon as possible because that's one of the foundational steps to being able to reopen safely.”
Only one thing is for sure: time is ticking for parents, students, the teachers’ union and the SFUSD. There are only about four months left till summer vacation, no plans for summer school to make up for a lost year and tens of thousands of families are looking for answers.
Sophie Bearman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org