By Thomas K. Pendergast
San Francisco public schools will not be reopening as planned on Jan. 25 after negotiations between the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) and the teachers union broke down.
An SFUSD press release stated that the City’s recent move into the state’s “purple” tier designation for COVID-19 restrictions – the most serious and restrictive phase – led to an impasse in negotiations with the United Educators of San Francisco (UESF), which represents the system’s teachers.
“Labor groups have proposed that no staff or students return to in-person learning until the City and County is in the state’s orange tier, indicating ‘moderate’ spread of COVID-19, for 14 days,” according to the press release. “This differs from the plan adopted by the Board of Education and permitted under state and local health orders, which allows schools in counties rated in the most restrictive purple tier to reopen for in-person instruction, if they receive a waiver.”
“This pandemic has required us to live with a great deal of uncertainty, and it’s simply not over yet,” SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews said. “I am disappointed that we cannot offer a guaranteed date for when we can resume in-person learning for our youngest and most vulnerable students.”
According to the San Francisco Examiner, the UESF told its members: “We want to be very clear; we want to be back in our classrooms with our colleagues, students and families. But we know we won’t get there through political pressure that focuses more on arbitrary dates and less on the real needs of our communities.”
California’s tier system for responding to the pandemic has been a rollercoaster ride for San Francisco. The San Jose Mercury News reported that last October the City became the first major jurisdiction to advance into the state’s least restrictive yellow reopening tier, yet within a month, it again went through the red tier and into the purple tier.
Dr. Grant Colfax, SF director of Public Health, said 217 people were diagnosed with the virus during the week of Oct. 12, but this increased to a high of 768 newly diagnosed cases by the week of Nov. 16, according to the SF Examiner.
“It is infuriating that our schools are not going to reopen for in-person learning in January,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed stated in a Dec. 18 press release. “I can’t imagine how hard this is for our families and for our young people who haven’t been in the classroom since March and are falling further behind every single day.
“Right now we are in a surge that requires us to stay home and stop the spread, but when we get through this difficult moment, we need to be ready to get our students in the classroom the moment our public health officials say we can,” Breed said. “We can’t create unrealistic standards for in-person learning that aren’t even recommended by the Department of Public Health. I understand the concerns of some of our teachers who are in the vulnerable population, and we should listen to them. But let’s be honest: San Francisco’s public health officials have been among the most conservative in the country in terms of reopening. When they say our schools can start opening again, our kids should be in the classroom the next day.”
On Dec. 22, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution urging the SFUSD to come up with a comprehensive plan for in-person learning and outline needs that the City could satisfy. The resolution, sponsored by District 1 Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer and District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen, did not propose a specific date.
The SF Examiner also reported that District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar and District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston backed failed amendments to the resolution which would have incorporated guidelines from the San Francisco Labor Council and increase support for families choosing to instead stick with distance learning.
At a recent town hall-style Zoom meeting hosted by California State Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-19th District), the challenges school officials are facing to reopen during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic were aired by San Francisco and San Mateo County school officials and teachers.
“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’ reopening can be done,” Ting said. “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.
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 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.”
“I understand the mental health issues and different challenges that are rising because we are still in at-home learning,” Kalimah Salahuddin, president of the Jefferson Union High School District Board of Trustees in Daly City, said. “But at the same time, it’s hard for me to make a judgment call that I know can cost someone their life.
“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,” Salahuddin said. “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?”
Shawnterra Moore, superintendent of the South San Francisco Unified School District, called for a plan.
“We entered into this without understanding fully the impact that it would actually have – social, emotionally, financially, mentally, psychologically,” 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.”
“We cannot do this alone,” 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. 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.”
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