SF, Bay Area Public Schools Struggle to Open During Pandemic

By Thomas K. Pendergast

San Francisco and San Mateo County public schools have been closed because of the pandemic for more than nine months, and officials are still struggling with whether and when to reopen.

At a recent town hall-style Zoom meeting hosted by California State Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-19th District) the challenges school officials are facing to safely open schools were aired even as we move into the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We know that we’ve done a lot of hard work here in California, yet we’re starting to see a second wave, so there’s much more work to be done, and schools opening can be done,” Ting said. “This can happen if schools are a priority. We know that we can’t stop COVID entirely. We want to make sure that we manage the spread.

“We also want to make sure to mandate health departments to give zip codes and census-tract-specific data on positive COVID tests,” he said. “We really want to make sure that we’re working in partnership with our local public health departments.”  

Erin Perusse, a social studies teacher at El Camino High School, described the fear of going back to classrooms, especially if they end up creating a massive Petri dish system for the COVID-19 virus to replicate and spread even further.

“I think that the main thing that my colleagues are concerned about is we see ourselves, as high school teachers, being a circulation system for the coronavirus,” Perusse said. “If I were having a regular schedule, I would see multiple classes throughout the day. And if any one person on that 1,300-person campus was potentially positive for the coronavirus, obviously, everyone is at risk. 

“We want to put a lot of energy into reopening, but I don’t really feel that we have the safety procedures in place to do that yet,” she said. “And I think that most of the people that I work with feel the same way; that we don’t have a system that we feel is safe.” 

Kalimah Salahuddin, president of the Jefferson Union High School District Board of Trustees in Daly City, summed up the dilemma faced by administrators trying to open up schools again. 

“I understand the mental health issues and different challenges that are rising because we are still in at-home learning,” Salahuddin said. “But at the same time, it’s hard for me to make a judgment or call that I know can cost someone their life. And I didn’t run for school board to make a life-and-death decision in that way.

“We’ve had 2,000 children test positive for COVID-19 and that’s without even having access to community testing because we’ve only recently had testing available for people under 18 (years old). So there hasn’t been widespread testing of students at all,” she said.

“But even with a small amount of testing, 2,000 have already tested positive in San Mateo County and we know that, with high school students, they have the same amount of spread as adults. And then what happens when they’re out of our sight? What’s going to happen with students when they’re off campus? We can control the protocols on campus but when they leave campus are they going to keep the mask on? Are they not going to hug each other? Are they not going to touch?”

“We cannot do this alone,” San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) Commissioner Jenny Lam said. “We must deepen those relationships, whether it be with the (SF) Department of Public Health, or working with Mayor Breed. And that includes, for example, being able to help build capacity at the staff level when we’re doing the school-site assessments because in (SFUSD) we have nearly 54,000 students, almost 10,000 employees, 128 school sites, and that’s not including (administration) buildings where adults are.”

She also thanked Mayor London Breed for giving the district $15 million from the City’s General Fund to help with COVID-19 related expenses.

“We entered into this without understanding fully the impact that it would actually have – social, emotionally, financially, mentally, psychologically,” Shawnterra Moore, superintendent of the South San Francisco Unified School District (SSFUSD), said. “And the fact that we have entered into distance learning, provided devices, hot spots to our students, provided training to our staff, given food to our community, provided mental health support across our communities … it’s hard.”

Moore said that at the SSFUSD they are working to improve their heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) air filtration system, because they have many old buildings,   “to ease the minds of our community.”

They have already set up COVID-19 testing for their staff, and when they start bringing the children back they would like to test their students, Moore said.

“But we all know there’s a cost to that as well, and there needs to be time and people who are willing to help us facilitate that,” she said. 

That district is still in distance-learning mode, so they’ve launched learning hubs in partnerships with Boys and Girls clubs of north San Mateo County.

They are also identifying students most in need for “in-person support,” Moore said.  

“We want to be really intentional and methodical in our efforts and also make sure that we are helping to educate and ensure that our community feels comfortable when we make the transition, which our board has tentatively identified for our students as after the New Year, Jan. 19,” Moore said. 

Assemblyman Ting asked why many private schools in both counties are already open.

“We have a hundred schools that have been approved (by the Department of Health) in San Francisco but they’re all independent or they’re parochial,” Ting said. “So is it that those schools are just more cavalier and they’re just willing to take that chance or is it that they have more resources to do what’s really necessary to reopen their schools?”

Salahuddin responded that private schools tend to be smaller, averaging fewer students per school. And she noted that it is the elementary schools that are more likely to open first. 

“If you’re a school of 100 or 200, then that’s a totally different ballgame than what we’re dealing with right now, so there’s huge differences in what a small private school can do versus a larger public school,” she said. “I will also say that there is huge differences with (opening) elementary schools and it tends to lean more towards the elementary schools that are opening than high schools.”

Commissioner Lam said the SFUSD is “marching forward toward” opening on Jan. 25, 2021, but starting just with the preschoolers, Kindergarten through second grades, plus children with moderate to severe disabilities. She said that the district estimates this initial opening will involve about 10,000 students “although not all at once but more gradual.” 

The subject of the SFUSD renaming about 40 of its schools came up, with a member of the public claiming it will cost the district money and asking if costs related to renaming could be delayed to prioritize reopening. 

“To date, the school district has not allocated any funding for school renaming,” Lam responded. 

She said the priorities of the school district at this time are to strengthen distance learning, to reopen and return to in-person instruction, and to ensure the financial sustainability of the district. 

“We have a long road ahead for the (SFUSD) and financial sustainability,” she said. “We still have some real shortfalls that we’re going to be grappling with in San Francisco, at numbers we haven’t seen in decades.” 

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