The City’s Cynical Attack on the San Francisco School Board
By Julie Pitta
We’re nearing the one-year anniversary of the City’s first shelter-in-place order. In the early weeks of the pandemic, I walked the neighborhood each evening, serenaded by a makeshift orchestra of pots and pans, a tribute to first-responders and a symbol of unity during the most trying of times.
Richmond residents, masked and socially distanced, carried on with their lives despite the constraints placed on them by a virus that is unpredictable, and often savage. Among the sacrifices all San Franciscans were willing to make was closing our public schools.
At this one-year mark, the mood has soured. Frustration has provoked an ill-advised call to resume in-person instruction at San Francisco’s public schools. That cry reached a crescendo just as the pandemic was doing its worst, and the city was struggling to obtain an adequate vaccine supply. Pandering to the public outcry, City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed a lawsuit against the school district, alleging it had violated the state’s constitution and equal rights laws by failing to offer in-person instruction.
The school district determines how best to educate all San Francisco Unified students. To do so, it must consider the well-being of the children in its care as well as that of the educators and staff it employs.
Complicating any return to in-person instruction is the sorry state of San Francisco’s public schools. Underfunded for years, our schools are in poor shape. CDC guidelines call for good ventilation to prevent the spread of the virus, but many San Francisco schools are in such disrepair that windows cannot be opened and air purifiers, in a system that lacks money for even the basics, simply don’t exist.
After June, the district must navigate reopening without the leadership of Superintendent Vincent Matthews. Matthews’ retirement, announced days after the United Educators of San Francisco and the Board of Education reached an agreement to return to in-person instruction, adds another complication to an already challenging plan.
It’s important to note that the demand for physically reopening public schools is not unanimous. When asked, many San Francisco Unified families, particularly those considered lower-income, say they aren’t ready to return their children to brick-and-mortar classrooms.
As tensions escalated, School Board President Gabriela Lopez and Vice President Alison Collins, two women of color, became the targets of death threats, attacks that are inexcusable regardless of the perceived provocation. Critics claim they allowed the board to become distracted by a project to rename public schools. In fact, renaming is part of the board’s efforts on racial equity which began three years ago. It merits further consideration.
And, it was never an either/or proposition. The board’s equity work did not prevent reopening. Safety did. Without widespread vaccination, reopened public schools will become hotbeds of disease transmission, spreading COVID-19 into the general population. Only now are teachers being vaccinated. But the process has been anything but smooth.
The City’s misguided lawsuit is an attack not only on the school board, but on our City’s educators who have behaved heroically during the pandemic. The school district found the resources to hand out computers to low-income families and helped those same families connect to the internet while teachers moved to online instruction with little training. At the same time, educators, so underpaid that few can afford to live in the city in which they work, were also dealing with the often-devastating consequences of COVID-19.
Now, San Francisco Unified must defend itself against a lawsuit brought by the city attorney and the mayor in a cynical attempt to placate the loudest, and often the most privileged, among us. City Attorney Herrera has stated he will challenge any plan that ties school reopening to vaccine availability.
The health of students, educators and district employees must come first. The science is clear: Resuming in-person instruction without vaccinating teachers and staff places their lives at risk. And children aren’t immune to COVID-19’s frequently debilitating side effects: The CDC recently reported that a significant number of kids, who have been exposed to or contracted COVID-19, are suffering from a life-threatening inflammation of the heart, brain, and kidneys.
I don’t deny that San Francisco’s public school students are hurting. So are their parents who are struggling to keep kids engaged with online learning while managing households under increasing pressure. But attacking the school board and the union that protects the interests of public educators won’t ease their pain.
The early days of the shelter-in-place were scary. And yet, I’m nostalgic for a time, not so long ago, when it looked as though San Franciscans would stick together and emerge from this crisis bloodied, but unbowed.
Julie Pitta is a member of the governing board of Richmond District Rising. Richmond District Rising builds electoral and political power for working class people, people of color, and other historically oppressed communities to ensure a progressive, liberated and equitable Richmond District. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.