Officials from San Francisco’s Department of Public Health (DPH) and school district assured families at a Town Hall event on Tuesday that schools will reopen, as planned, for five days a week for all students. This message follows a tumultuous 2020-21 school year, in which San Francisco lagged most major cities in reopening its classrooms to students, and comes amid a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations driven by the Delta variant.
At the Town Hall, both school district and health officials asserted that public schools can and will reopen safely on Aug. 16.
“Children who are getting Delta have mild or no symptoms,” said Dr. Daniel Woolridge, a pediatrician at UCSF, while urging adults and those over the age of 12 to get vaccinated if they haven’t already. “COVID-19 is a pandemic very much driven by adult behavior,” he said.
Meanwhile, SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews said that classrooms this fall will look much like they did pre-pandemic, except that instructors and students will wear face coverings indoors.
“We are returning full-time, five days a week, in person,” said Matthews. “Just imagine December of 2019, but with everyone wearing masks.”
The district will not require physical distancing or cohorting, except during meal times for unvaccinated students, and disinfection is only required in areas where there was a confirmed COVID-19 case. Otherwise, cleaning spaces once a day is enough, according to DPH.
“The reason physical distancing is not being promoted as widely is because the things that work and work best are masking, eligible people getting vaccinated, very good hygiene and staying at home when you’re sick,” said Dr. Woolridge, citing data gathered throughout the pandemic. “Right now we’re in a period where we know what works.”
Local and national experts agree that the risk of COVID-19 transmission within schools is very low: Last school year, San Francisco public schools saw seven reported cases of in-school transmission among 48,000 students and staff, according to DPH. No widespread outbreaks were reported either in SFUSD last year, or within camps and learning hubs this summer.
“This shows there is good data and science on how schools can reopen and reduce transmission,” said Dr. Naveena Bobba, deputy director of health at DPH.
Unlike school districts in Los Angeles and San Jose, SFUSD isn’t currently requiring that teachers be vaccinated or get tested up to twice a week. Matthews didn’t rule out the option, however.
“We are currently accessing exactly who is vaccinated and we will use that data to determine what our next steps will be,” he said. In the meantime, teachers are strongly encouraged to get vaccinated.
United Educators of San Francisco, the union representing public school teachers, said on Twitter this week that the requirements it's advocating for are “either get vaccinated or get tested regularly. No exceptions.” Previously, UESF had said it supported teachers getting vaccinated or being “offered” regular testing.
Meanwhile, Mayor Breed said late last week that the city was exploring ways to mandate shots in arms for people outside of the city’s own workforce of 37,000. SFUSD is a separate entity from the city and county of San Francisco, and teachers are not city employees.
For students with “particular circumstances,” SFUSD will offer a very limited distance learning option this fall,” said Matthews. “It’s very limited and it really is for cases where there is some vulnerability for the student,” he added.
Students required to quarantine due to COVID-19 will be provided instructional materials during the quarantine period, but they will not be able to join the limited distance learning program.
“The most effective way that we provide education is in person. We think it’s important that students return, and we want all the students who can return to return,” Matthews added.
With vaccinations, indoor masking, ventilation and staying home when sick, officials believe they have a formula for successfully and safely returning to in-person learning.
“We are not expecting cases within schools to be zero. Community transmission and in-home transmission will still occur,” said Dr. Bobba. “But the goal is that we have everything in place to prevent transmissions in schools to the best degree possible.”
Matthews also acknowledged that very few students were able to attend school in person last year, and said that the first few weeks of in-person learning will focus on rebuilding relationships and community.
“We want them to know that we care about them—care deeply— and we’re doing everything we can to make sure the environment they come back to is a safe environment,” Matthews said.
“We know you’re coming back to a place where you haven’t been in a while,” he added.
Sophie Bearman can be reached at [email protected]