As San Francisco preteens rolled up to Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School on Wednesday, some looked on with wide eyes and horror as a swarm of adults cheered them down a red carpet for the first day of a new year.
Wednesday marked the second fully in-person school year since the pandemic and the first with a new school board that says it wants to prioritize student achievement over politics in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD).
Last year’s initial return to campus was bumpy as Covid cases waxed and waned while students and staff had to reorient themselves after a year and a half of distance learning.
The ripple effects of the pandemic are still being felt. Testing and masking are still encouraged, but not required.
For SFUSD, the first day comes stacked with challenges for the school year ahead: missing pay for weary teachers, understaffing, learning recovery, rising absenteeism and a structural deficit that’s put the district under state watch.
Plus, the Board of Education is reckoning with Commissioner Ann Hsu’s comments attributing “lack of parental encouragement” to challenges for Black and Brown students, which was widely condemned as racist.
It’s a lot to juggle for Matt Wayne, who became SFUSD’s new superintendent in July.
“I’m coming to San Francisco after an incredibly challenging two years in education in general and particular challenges in San Francisco,” he said at John O’Connell High School. “I’m focused on moving forward and ensuring that families feel connected to the district. That’s definitely a goal of mine as we move forward as a community to focus on students and what’s going to be best for them.”
But on the campus level, the excitement of the first day back after summer recess appeared to supersede concerns about politics or the pandemic.
Kwesi Edwards said the return last year set his sixth-grader up for entering middle school after some tough times with distance learning. Now, he’s excited for his child to be enrolled at Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School, a STEM-focused campus with robotics, flag football and other activities.
“We’re all a little nervous and excited,” Edwards said. “We’re starting to get back to normal. I’ve seen the funding, the staffing—so far we’re good with all that.”
One parent, Ingrid Aguirre, is feeling the anxiety over the school location and schedule. She came from the Tenderloin using two buses to drop off her sixth-grader at Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School in Bayview. Aguirre, who requested schools closer to her home, then must decamp to the Balboa BART station area to drop off her three-year-old at daycare, then to work in the Mission.
“It’s a long way for me,” Aguirre said.
Across the district, concerns about school staffing loomed over the first day back.
SFUSD managed to plug a gap of some 60 classroom teachers as of the end of last week, according to district spokesperson Laura Dudnick. But to do so required using teachers on special assignment who usually support students and educators with issues like reading and math coaching.
It’s unclear just how many were reassigned or how long they will remain in those positions, which they only learned about in the past few days.
Teachers on special assignment who were reassigned for part of the school day will receive a $1,500 stipend and those reassigned full time will receive a $3,000 stipend, according to Dudnick.
“Folks having to transition to new sites or new positions with really little notice is difficult on every school site,” said Cassondra Curiel, president of the United Educators of San Francisco. “There’s a lot of excitement, a lot of hope but there’s also a lot of anxiety about what we were walking into especially with how stressful the last year was. The beginning of every school year has a lot of emotions at the same time.”
Seniors like Oriah Renner St. Clair are bracing for a different kind of anxiety: life beyond high school and college applications.
“So far, it’s not feeling any different, but there’s impending expectations,” said Renner St. Clair, a senior at John O’Connell High School. “I don’t want to think about it. I missed a lot of my friends over the summer, just like I’m going to miss them when I graduate.”
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