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Board of Education rejects $4M plan for new virtual school

Emily Storms tutors a fifth grade math class at home via Zoom on Tuesday, April 7, 2020, in San Francisco. | Liz Hafalia/The Chronicle via Getty

The future of remote learning in San Francisco public schools is in question after the Board of Education rejected an accelerated proposal from school district staff to create a virtual academy at its meeting on Tuesday. 

San Francisco Unified School District staff sought to meet the ongoing demand for online learning—which some students and parents have said they find preferable—by funding an online-only school for elementary and middle school students.

The proposed school, which district staff argued would improve upon remote learning options pioneered during the pandemic, would cost about $4 million and serve around 500 students from transitional kindergarten through eighth grade who learn better online or whose families remain concerned over Covid transmission, according to district projections. Younger students would feed into the pre-existing Independence High School, which has offered remote learning since 1980. 

Staff first surfaced the idea two weeks ago at a curriculum committee meeting but didn’t specify a timeline. On Tuesday, they said approval was needed to meet a May 2 deadline, to the surprise of commissioners. Deputy Superintendent of Instruction Enikia Ford Morthel said that’s the day the California Department of Education needs application materials to create a school code, usable for two years, to be able to build the virtual academy in time for the upcoming school year. 

“I am very concerned with the pace here,” said Commissioner Lisa Weissman-Ward at the board’s regular meeting on Tuesday. “I’m not comfortable moving forward, especially with a structural deficit at play here. To set up a new system without fixing the systems that currently need fixing is really concerning to me.”

Superintendent Vincent Matthews brought forward the resolution as a special order of business, prompting confusion by some commissioners and student delegate Joanna Lam over why a first reading or suspension of rules was not required. Legal counsel said special order of business was a “gray area.”

Other commissioners were skeptical of the quick approval sought by the district, as well as the plan’s unknown fiscal implications. The board rejected it 4-2.

Board President Jenny Lam and Vice President Kevine Boggess voted in favor of the proposal, noting that while they agreed with their colleagues’ concerns, they thought offering a virtual learning option for elementary and middle school students would help retain families concerned about Covid or had children who learned better in an online environment. 

SFUSD staff assured commissioners that the district wouldn’t be beholden to the initial plans despite submitting an application next week.

“I definitely feel there’s urgency around the creation of a virtual academy and having it next year to better support families,” Boggess said. 

Without the resolution approved, Ford Morthel said the current programs offering limited live instruction would continue, as would headaches around counting attendance and grades. She estimated the costs of a virtual academy is ultimately lower without the duplicated work. 

“We still have some time to thoughtfully build the school in a responsible way,” Morthel said before the vote. “SFUSD continues to try to be creative on how we can attract and maintain [families]. The interest is even greater than the current enrollment.”

Students enrolled in the Online Learning Program, for those with medical conditions, or the On Demand Learning Program, chosen by families who prefer to remain online, must still be enrolled at a regular site. In August 2021, more than 1,900 students sought remote learning and not everyone was accepted. According to a staff report that is no longer accessible, there were 511 students enrolled in the programs as of March and demand was expected to continue into the fall.