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As Youngest SFUSD Students Return, Middle and High Schoolers Feel Left Behind

Updated: Apr 14, 2021

  • A limited number of SFUSD students returned to classrooms this week, and the district plans to bring 22,000 students back by the end of April on either an in-person or hybrid basis

  • The Board of Education pledged to reopen schools for all grade levels in the fall, but stands to lose millions in state funding if it doesn't bring back at least some middle and high school students by May

As younger students return to San Francisco public schools, families with middle and high schoolers are urging a swifter return to full-time, classroom learning for all grade levels.

On Monday, 33 public schools reopened for a limited number of students in transitional kindergarten through second grade, as well as for some with learning disabilities. More elementary students are slated to return throughout April, with 107 school buildings likely open, and an estimated 22,000 students back to classrooms, by the end of this month according to the school district.

“It will feel different from before the pandemic for so many reasons, including the health and safety protocols but schools are still places for connection and interaction,” said schools superintendent Dr. Vincent Matthews in a statement.

Specific schedules, however, will vary broadly by school. Families can opt to remain in distance learning, and schools with more demand for in-person learning will split students into two groups at two days per week each. Schools with less demand, as well as pre-K, special day schools and county schools, will bring students back five days per week with abbreviated schedules.

The district and its leadership on the Board of Education have been sharply criticized for lagging behind other major metros in reopening classrooms to students, despite recommendations by public health officials that in-person learning is safe. California schools are offering the lowest levels of in-person learning of any U.S. state, according to Burbio, and San Francisco's district has been slower to reopen than any other major city.

If it doesn't offer in-person instruction for higher grade levels soon, SFUSD stands to lose millions of dollars in funding through AB 86, a state incentive plan approved earlier this year. That incentive plan, which could have disbursed $17.8 million in total funding to SFUSD, withholds 1% for each day classrooms aren't reopened for at least some students starting in April.

The plan also requires districts to offer in-person learning for at least one grade of middle and high school, in addition to all elementary students, and includes a deadline of May 15. After that date, districts will not be eligible for any additional funding.

"This is real money we’re putting up," said California Governor Gavin Newsom on Wednesday, urging schools to find resourceful ways to expand in-person learning. "Money is not an object; it’s an excuse."

At a demonstration outside SFUSD's administrative offices on Monday, parents and children urged to district to more quickly reopen classrooms for middle and high schoolers. The district has pledged to reopen schools full-time in the fall, and indicated that it hopes to return some older students this year, but said it is unlikely that all middle and high schoolers will return before the fall.

"I ask the powers that be, our board, our SFUSD, and the unions, to put students first," said Supryia Ray, a parent of two students at SFUSD. "It's not a question of whether we can do it, it's the will to do it."

Bearing slogans like "Schools not screens" and "Help! I'm becoming a Zoombie," students speaking outside the SFUSD offices on Monday expressed sadness, frustration and a sense of unfairness that younger studentsalong with peers at private and parochial schoolsget the benefit of classroom learning and social interaction that just isn't possible remotely. Students said they have been unable to make new friends remotely, particularly if they started a new middle or high school last year, and aren't learning much on Zoom.

Echoing other SFUSD parents, John Kim, parent of a sixth grader, said he hoped to see the district bring older students back even for a month or so this year: "Middle and high schoolers are the only ones they aren't prioritizing now," said Kim.

"It's really sad, because I really want to go back to school," said Kim's son, Jason, a sixth grader who began middle school remotely in the midst of the pandemic. "I'm really excited to go back to school, and actually go back to the classroom and make friends."

In the background are multiple lawsuits aimed at district leadership, including one accusing the Board of Education of violating open meetings laws in voting to rename 44 schools in 2020. The board walked back that decision last week.

Another lawsuit, filed by the City Attorney, accused the district, the board and Superintendent Matthews of violating state law by depriving public school students of in-person learning. A judge recently rejected an emergency motion to reopen schools full-time at all grade levels by April, however.

Board member Allison Collins also sued the Board of Education two weeks ago, claiming that the group violated her civil rights after they voted to strip her of a Vice President title and committee assignments after a revelation of past offensive tweets about Asian students and parents.

A group of parents is also circulating a petition seeking to recall Collins, board president Gabriela López, and member Faauuga Moliga. If the petition generates the required number of valid voter signatures, equivalent to about 51,000 per board member, a special election will be held later this year.


Image by Jake Buonemani
Image by Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup

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