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SF Schools’ Extended Closure Puts Kids and Families at Risk, Say Supervisors

  • At a tense meeting, Supervisors pressed the school board for a timeline to reopen schools, noting that SFUSD is behind neighboring counties

  • Supervisors cited risks to vulnerable children and to working families, with recent data suggesting that COVID pressures are driving some parents out of the labor force

  • San Francisco public schools have been closed since March, and the District has not set a target date for reopening in-person instruction

There’s a lot at stake in San Francisco Unified School District’s re-opening prospects, and frustration ran high at a recent meeting.

At a joint session with members of the Board of Education, City Supervisors pressed the school district for a reopening timeline, and for more specifics on how City departments can step in to help. San Francisco public schools have been closed for in-person instruction since March, and SFUSD officials have said that they won’t reopen for the rest of the year.

“Families are falling apart when parents are expected to work full time. I've got [City Attorney] Dennis Herrera calling me, saying half my female attorneys…are threatening to leave because they can’t do their jobs,” said Sup. Hillary Ronen in a tense exchange. “Who does it fall upon? Mostly women.”

Labor market experts have cautioned that the pressures of remote schooling, particularly among families with younger children, could lead some parents to drop out of the workforce during a period of already high unemployment.

Statistics from California’s Employment Development Division show that in September 2020, 68,000 people voluntarily left jobs for unspecified reasons, compared to 29,600 at the same time last year; nationwide, a recent McKinsey survey found that as many as 2 million women are considering leaving their jobs because of COVID-related family pressures.

The risks to children -- particularly vulnerable children already in danger of falling behind peers -- are daunting, added Sup. Sandra Lee Fewer. Prolonged remote schooling further entrenches inequities in the school system, she said.

“Pediatric experts will tell you….kids not being in active learning environments, not getting social interaction, is more detrimental to their long-term wellbeing than the risk of COVID itself,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

The school district established a dashboard showing progress on tasks required for reopening under state and SF Department of Public Health COVID-19 guidelines, but has avoided setting a timetable for reopening.

At the meeting, SFUSD leadership argued that the school district -- with 55,000 students, 10,000 staff members and 160 schools -- needs more assistance, and pinned the prolonged closure on insufficient testing infrastructure as well as ongoing negotiations with the teacher’s union, the United Educators of San Francisco.

Supervisors countered that schools’ lack of a timeline doesn’t line up with the San Francisco's overall reopening progress, nor with that of neighboring counties.

San Francisco was moved into California’s "yellow" COVID-19 tier last week, a lower-risk classification that permits offices, movie theaters and other indoor venues to open at some capacity. Meanwhile, a student Covid risk tool developed by researchers at UCSF shows San Francisco students at lower risk of infection than other California cities.

Ronen pointed out that Alameda, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties have signed an agreement with Curative, a testing lab, in an effort to reopen in-person instruction in early November, and questioned why SFUSD hasn’t kept pace with neighboring counties.

“Why are we making this so complicated?” Ronen said.

The meeting, which also included representatives from City College, the Department of Public Health and the teachers's union, failed to yield an agreement on who would coordinate an agreement with a testing lab and administer testing for the school district. District Commissioners argued that DPH should handle testing, but Mary Ellen Carroll, DPH's Head of Emergency Management, declined to commit.

“Everyone has to get to the table and determine what’s needed. Decide what model you want to commit to. We can’t just take on the testing,” she said.

Supervisors insisted that the school district take a more proactive approach to reopening, and asked members of the school board to reconvene in early November with a list of actionable requests that will help them establish a timeline.

“Every day we don’t do something, those kids get farther and farther behind,” Fewer said.


Image by Jake Buonemani
Image by Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup

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