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Amid staff, test and mask shortages, teacher group plans ‘sick-out’

A group of San Francisco teachers is organizing a “sick out” this Thursday to demand better protections for staff and students in the face of a local spike in Covid cases.

Teacher Greg McGarry, who is helping lead the strike alongside two of his colleagues, said the San Francisco Unified School District hasn’t done enough to keep staff and students safe from the ultra-contagious Omicron variant. McGarry said SFUSD should have been better prepared for another surge on the heels of this summer’s Delta variant and sent out at-home tests and high-quality masks before winter break or consider postponing in-person classes, which resumed on Monday.

“If the district had taken this more seriously and allocated their resources properly, we could have returned with confidence,” McGarry said. “To have no plan in place is criminal.”

McGarry, who teaches American Literature at Mission High School, said the strike was inspired by school employees across the Bay Area and nation who are calling for a two-week pause on in-person learning until more testing and safety protocols are in place so schools can stay open long term. McGarry said it’s unclear how many teachers will participate in the strike, but an online petition he created on had more than 300 signatures as of Tuesday evening. The district did not respond to The Standard’s request for a comment on the planned strike. 

The strike is scheduled for Jan. 6, the same day as a pre-scheduled meeting between the teachers’ union and the district to negotiate an updated agreement that is likely to involve Covid safety measures including sick days, masks and testing. Teachers’ union United Educators of San Francisco took to Twitter on Tuesday to say its group will be at the district office on Thursday to begin negotiations. While McGarry is a member of UESF, he said the union is not involved in organizing the strike. 

But in a statement sent out Tuesday, UESF leaders echoed McGarry’s concerns, announcing a press conference this week to address the district's “inept and negligent handling” of the Omicron surge and the union’s plan to distribute Covid tests and keep school buildings open.

Meanwhile, hundreds of teachers are already out sick because they are exhibiting Covid symptoms or have known exposures, and case rates in the district continue to rise. SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick wrote in an email to The Standard that 400 teachers were out of local public schools on Monday, and 600 staff were absent on Tuesday. Without enough substitute teachers to meet the demand, Dudnick wrote, other credentialed staff are helping keep classrooms running. 

At Mission High School on Monday, McGarry said 19 staff members were absent, forcing teachers to take on extra classes during their prep time or submit lesson plans from home while other staff, like administrators and counselors, filled in the gaps.

“It was really an all-hands-on-deck situation,” McGarry said.

Since mid-November, SFUSD has been offering free rapid test kits to students and staff who are symptomatic or have come in close contact with positive cases at school. This week, in response to rising case rates in the city, the district began offering rapid testing at a handful of schools and the central district office, in addition to four mobile testing sites per day at various campuses citywide.

San Francisco Unified was set to receive enough Covid tests for every student from the state to help with a safe return from winter break, but as of Tuesday, the district is still awaiting the delivery because of shipment delays, according to state health officials. 

Since the reopening of schools last year, SFUSD has required all students to wear masks, complete daily health screenings and follow state and local guidelines for isolation and quarantine. The district announced this week that it will follow new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that allow students and staff who have tested positive for Covid to return to school after five days of isolation if they no longer have a fever, have improving symptoms and show proof of a negative test on or after the fifth day. 

Other districts across the state are facing similar challenges amid rising case rates nationally just as school is set to resume. Oakland Unified School District offered free at-home rapid test kits to all students, encouraging them to take them before returning to school after the holidays. And on Monday, Los Angeles Unified School District announced it will require a negative Covid test from all students and staff before they return to school on Jan. 11. 

For many parents, a return to remote learning—even temporarily—would do more harm than good. In a statement issued last week, local parent group San Francisco Parent Coalition said it supports the district’s decision to return in-person after winter break, but called on the district to implement a “test to stay” strategy to allow students and staff who have been exposed to Covid to stay in classrooms so long as they test negative for the virus twice. The group also called on the city to prioritize school staff and students at local testing sites.

At the school district-only testing site at Jefferson Elementary School on Tuesday, parent Mariama Wang and her two kids were among a trickle of families getting swabbed after she learned their family may have been exposed to Covid. Wang said she wants her kids to stay in their classrooms at Alice Fong Yu Alternative School, where she said the Covid protocols have been strong.

“I don’t want them to miss school,” Wang said.