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San Francisco looks ahead to helping children, families recover from pandemic upheaval

With public schools slated to reopen on Aug. 16, families will soon return to a semblance of normalcy—albeit with masking mandates and scheduling changes. 

But helping those families recover from a very difficult year—particularly those children who struggled with stress, isolation and learning loss during the pandemic—calls for a dedicated effort and long-range planning. 

“The pandemic was an equal opportunity virus, so it impacted all of us,” said Maria Su, executive director of San Francisco’s Department of Children, Youth & Their Families (DCYF). “Clearly some families were impacted more than others. A lot of what we learned from this was that, of course, families that were the most marginalized in terms of access to city services and financial resources were the ones that were impacted the most.

In July 2021, Mayor London Breed tapped DCYF to craft a multi-year plan to help those families recover from the pandemic. The department hopes to move quickly, spending the next two months speaking to families and other stakeholders, and presenting a written report by January 2022. 

“The mayor asked the department to help her and the city understand the impact that [COVID] had on our children and families across all sectors in the city—not just in our lives, but the impact on housing, workforce [and] transportation access,” Su said. 

DCYF was selected, in part, because of the central role it played in spinning up community learning hubs—impromptu, in-person learning centers—for disadvantaged kids during the pandemic. In collaboration with other city departments and local nonprofits, DCYF established 86 sites between Sept. 2020 and June 2021 that accommodated more than 2,500 children, including hundreds living in public housing, single-room occupancies, foster care or who were homeless. 

Alana Lee (left), 6 years old, shows legos made in the learning hub inside the Minnie and Lovie Ward Recreation Ctr. on Thursday, July 23, 2020, in San Francisco | Getty Images

Now, its task is to review the impact of COVID-19 on a broader set of families and children, and to act as the “backbone” of a plan to remediate learning loss, advance mental health and reorient government services around the needs of struggling families in the city. 

“We're working really closely with our school district partners to try to figure out: How do we build on the system that we have now to ensure that there is wraparound support for children?” Su added. 

At a meeting on Monday, Su and other members of the Children, Youth, and Their Families Oversight and Advisory Committee, which oversees DCYF’s policies and planning, pointed to a breadth of challenges facing children: Mental and emotional health struggles, learning deficiencies and technological and logistical hurdles in and around the home. 

San Francisco Unified School District is also facing a substantial drop in enrollment, with about 1,700 children leaving the district between fall 2020 and fall 2021. The district hopes to retain more students and to increase enrollment in the years ahead, and may face a drop in state funding if it is unsuccessful in doing so. 

Student engagement plummeted as remote learning dragged on: Data collected by the school district showed widening learning gaps in reading and math last year. Disparities in both attendance and academic performance worsened along socioeconomic and racial lines, with disadvantaged students falling further behind in school. Public health experts linked remote learning with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues in children and teenagers. 

"I really want to go back to school," said Jason Kim, a sixth grader who began middle school remotely in the midst of the pandemic, in April. "I'm really excited to go back to school and actually go back to the classroom and make friends."  

In a recent case study on the community hubs, independent researchers wrote that with multiple city departments aligned around a singular goal of helping vulnerable students, participants from the Recreation & Park Department, the San Francisco Public Libraries and various community organizations were able to mobilize sites that provided a safe, healthy place for children to learn and socialize in the absence of classroom learning. 

“When you move with a singular mission and a focus population in mind you can get a lot of amazing work done,” Su said. “We had swim teachers running learning hubs; we had maintenance people becoming delivery people, and we had all different types of people who volunteered.”

The report also identified obstacles in getting the hubs up and running, which included “political tensions” and pushback by supporters of United Educators of San Francisco, the union representing public school teachers, who objected to people outside their union providing in-person services to children. Those tensions even resulted in disagreement over what to call the hubs, with some union leaders and Board of Education commissioners objecting to the word “learning” being included. 

A similar dynamic played out in efforts last year to plan for reopening schools. In June of last year, Board of Education commissioners rejected a plan to hire a consultant to plan for a potential fall 2020 reopening of in-person instruction. Emails obtained by Here/Say Media showed commissioner Alison Collins decrying the plan to hire an outside consultant as “disaster capitalism” in a June 2020 email exchange. No one was ever hired, and schools remained fully closed until April 2021, when SFUSD launched a limited, phased reopening of in-person instruction.  

According to Su, San Francisco’s robust nonprofit sector was a major advantage in scaling the hubs quickly and efficiently. 

“Without the nonprofit agencies, we honestly would not be able to do this,” she said. “If you look at other cities that do not have as robust of a nonprofit [sector] as San Francisco, they struggled significantly to run something similar. Because we had access to hundreds of people, we were able to ask them to step up and step in.”

DCYF and SFUSD recently secured a donation to build a mental wellness program specifically for middle schoolers, which will complement an existing, similar program for high school students. Other initiatives that may arise from the recovery plan include specialized transportation options to and from school, more summer school options and enhanced after-school programs. 

“What we’ve realized is that the after-school community is experiencing this huge staffing shortage,” Su added. “It’s not unique to the after-school community, but when you layer on top of that part-time work, and lower wage work, it gets even harder.”

“Part-time pay might be good for some people, but we definitely need more full-time programing, and full-time opportunities. You need better wages and better benefits for people,” Su added. 

Su said that part of DCYF’s role, in addition to surveying families identifying areas of need and writing a plan, will be to tap available funding streams to spin up the programs: the federal government, the state, the city, or even local philanthropists. If successful, the recovery plan could serve as a model for improving other public services citywide.

“I believe when you make systems work for children and families, you improve systems for the entire city,” Su said. 

Annie Gaus can be reached at