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Excitement, some jitters as students return to San Francisco’s classrooms

Tens of thousands of San Francisco students returned to classrooms Monday, many for the first time in 518 days—or ever—as campuses reopened following more than a year of remote learning.

At Dr. George Washington Carver Elementary School in the Bayview, San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) Superintendent Vincent Matthews greeted students and cheered the long-awaited reopening.

“We know that the best place for students is in-person,” said Matthews. “We’re ecstatic to have them back.”

Superintendent Vincent Matthews, school board president Gabriela Lopez and Supervisor Rafael Mandelman greet students as they arrive for their first day of school at Everett Middle School. | Photo by Sophie Bearman

There was much excitement and some jitters Monday morning, as parents waved goodbye to their children and weighed safety concerns around the Delta variant and rising COVID-19 cases in the Bay Area.

Anna Torres, a mother of two boys, lingered anxiously in Everett Middle School’s near-empty courtyard well after the morning bell had rung and staff and students—including her son—had disappeared into the school building.

“The school says everything is safe and that he’ll be okay,” said Torres. “I really feel scared about it. But I think it’s good to stay at school because we need them back to normal life.”

Anna Torres, a mother of two SFUSD children, said she’s a bit anxious about safety but overall glad her children are back in classrooms. | Photo by Sophie Bearman

Health and school district officials have reassured families in the weeks leading up to reopening that a combination of vaccinations, indoor masking, ventilation and staying home when sick make in-person learning at full capacity feasible.

Face coverings are required indoors for students and staff. All of the district’s roughly 10,000 employees must be fully vaccinated by Sept. 7 or submit to “at least once” weekly COVID-19 testing. SFUSD district spokeswoman Gentle Blythe told Here/Say on Monday that SFUSD “hasn’t finalized” its position on whether to strengthen the mandate by making vaccinations a condition of employment.

Commissioner Jenny Lam said she supports requiring all staff be vaccinated—full stop.

“However we can increase vaccinations of eligible adults, that is the way that we will be able to have continual in-person learning,” said Lam.

Two Everett Middle School students take a selfie before heading indoors for their first day of school. | Photo by Sophie Bearman

COVID-19 aside, most students Here/Say spoke with Monday morning said they were excited to return, and anxious about the usual things students stress about: making friends, meeting teachers and finding their footing in a new environment.

SFUSD is emphasizing community connections in the first few weeks of back-to-school, as students acclimate to in-person learning.

Students at Everett Middle School search for their homeroom assignments on Aug. 16, 2021. | Photo by Sophie Bearman

“Community and connection is our focus for the first two weeks,” said Everett Middle School principal Esther Fensel.

“It’s all about building relationships and social-emotional learning. A sense of belonging is hard to accomplish with distance learning,” Fensel added.

Additional reporting by Meaghan Mitchell. Video by Mike Kuba.

Sophie Bearman can be reached at