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What to expect from pandemic policies as San Francisco students head back to class

A student at Lowell High School in San Francisco on Jan. 13, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

It’s back-to-school day in San Francisco, when nearly 50,000 public school kids return to class amid another surge in Covid-19 cases caused by BA.5—the most contagious omicron sub-variant yet. 

Though citywide Covid deaths have increased in recent weeks, Matt Wayne, San Francisco Unified’s new superintendent, says the district is well equipped to temper the pandemic’s effect on students, teachers and their families. 

“While Covid-19 is here to stay,” he wrote in a bulletin to families ahead of the new school year, “we have methods and tools to decrease its impact on our well-being.”

San Francisco has done a great job getting vaccinated against the virus, he noted, which prevents the worst symptoms and keeps more people out of the hospital. According to the city’s Department of Public Health, 77% of children aged 5 to 11 in San Francisco are inoculated as are 90% of kids aged 12 to 17. 

“Public health experts continue to reiterate that schools are safe, that in-person learning is critical to student well-being and development, and that cases and hospitalizations in San Francisco children have been low,” Wayne continued in his letter to parents. 

Covid may be here to stay, but Wayne assured SFUSD families that the district has a better handle on how to adapt to the public health crisis. With that in mind, here’s SFUSD’s Covid plan as it enters the third year of the pandemic. 

What’s New?

Over the summer, the San Francisco Department of Public Health dropped its separate local Covid guidance for schools, child care and other youth programs. It now refers to the California Department of Public Health standards, which make pandemic precautions mostly advisory instead of mandatory.

Back-to-school Covid testing, for one thing, is encouraged but not required.

Thankfully, tests are widely available. You can find them for free on, at low-to-no cost at pharmacies and other community facilities or at city-run sites

On Thursday, families can get tested from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Mission Hub at 19th and Alabama streets, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Bayview Operate House at 4705 Third St. or from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the US Hastings testing van at 200 McAllister St. in the Tenderloin.

Throughout the fall semester, SFUSD will transition from take-home molecular test kits at schools to distributing state-issued over-the-counter rapid antigen tests.

Take-home molecular tests will be available at various school sites through the end of September. The state's rapid antigen kits, meanwhile, will be distributed at various campuses through next week.

What else can families expect?

Masks Aren’t a Must

As classes commence Wednesday, SFUSD is stressing the importance of masking—especially indoors. But face coverings aren’t mandatory. 

SFUSD is basing its mask policy on guidelines from the California Department of Public Health, which strongly advises but doesn’t mandate face coverings indoors at school. 

That said, Wayne added, “Students, staff and visitors may choose to wear a mask as they see fit.” And, he continued, “We ask that you respect the right of others to wear a mask.”

Of course that guidance could change. 

“We will continue to monitor updates from health officials,” Wayne said, “and make adjustments to our mask policy as needed.”

Vaccines and Boosters? Also Optional

SFUSD students and staff may not have to get the jab, but the district can’t stress enough how much it makes things safer for everyone. But the vast majority of the 50,000 or so SFUSD students and district staff have inoculated themselves against Covid-19, according to public health data. 

Wayne said it’s important for those aged 5 and up who have been vaccinated to get their booster shots, too. 

“Vaccines benefit everyone in school and child care programs, including staff and older students,” he wrote. “It is one of the most important ways to help keep our community safe from Covid-19.”

For information about how to access Covid vaccines in San Francisco, the district created this landing page

Parents pick up students from Lakeshore Alternative Elementary School on Jan. 13, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Group Contact Tracing Continues

SFUSD will continue its policy of contact tracing groups that came in close contact indoors for at least 15 minutes with anyone who tests positive for Covid while contagious. 

The district will inform staff and students about those efforts through a group tracing memo if one or more people report testing positive for the virus at a school or district office site. 

“This approach is supported by public health officials as a safe way to manage Covid-19 and decrease the number of missed days of students,” Wayne wrote. 

With absenteeism on the rise in San Francisco and beyond, group contact tracing is all the more urgent. 

Clean Air and Ventilation

Last year, SFUSD installed portable air cleaners in all classrooms and student spaces, which officials hope will lessen Covid contagion.

Meanwhile, in anticipation of smoke from this wildfire season negatively impacting staff and students amid a pulmonary disease pandemic, SFUSD officials plan to actively monitor the city’s air quality.

If the air is polluted enough with ash and other particulates, the district will issue orders to protect students by, for example, closing windows or decreasing outdoor air intake through the ventilation systems. 

When the district bought its portable air cleaners this past year, Wayne said it did so with wildfire smoke in mind.

Screenings, Tests and Isolation

The district also asks families to remain vigilant about their health at home, too. 

SFUSD urges staff, parents and students to screen themselves for Covid on a daily basis while also frequently washing hands and sanitizing. 

If a student or employee tests positive, it must be reported by calling (415) 660-9850 or emailing The infected individual should also stay home and isolate for at least five days.

Students can return if they test negative after six days since symptoms first appeared or 10 days without a negative test since symptoms were first detected.

To stay abreast of the latest pandemic updates, bookmark SFUSD’s online portal for Covid updates and resources, which you can find here.