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SFUSD Files 'Letter of Interest' to Reopen Schools; Supes Delay Vote Urging Comprehensive Plan

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

  • SFUSD officials presented a plan that allows 14,000 of its 55,000 students to receive at least partial onsite learning beginning January 25, and continuing in phases through March 2021

  • Labor disputes have delayed the development of a formal reopening plan, with safety concerns a sticking point for the teachers' union

  • Citing logistical challenges, the District said they need an additional $5 million to $38 million to reopen

  • Meanwhile, the SF Board of Supervisors would not commit to a resolution urging a comprehensive reopening plan

San Francisco School District officials presented a plan that allows about 14,000 of its 55,000 students, including grades 3-5, to receive at least partial onsite learning beginning January 25. Under the District's plan, students would return in waves through late March 2021 using combinations of onsite and distance learning.

The plan was introduced at a Dec. 8 meeting, and was followed by a "letter of intent," filed by Superintendent Vincent Matthews, to reopen six elementary schools as early as Jan. 25, then 18 other sites in early February, and 48 others starting in late March.

The plan lays out a phased return to in-person instruction, with students in TK-2 (transitional kindergarten through grade 2) and students with disabilities returning first, in what officials are describing as Phase 2A.

Those students will be followed by students who are homeless, foster youth, public housing residents and students showing low online engagement (Phase 2B).

TK students and those with disabilities will attend school onsite 5 days per week, according to the District's plan. Other students in these phases will split their weeks between online and onsite, a model known as hybrid learning.

Many decisions still need to be made about third, fourth and fifth graders.

The District presented a set of re-opening scenarios, and asked the Board of Supervisors for guidance. Ideally, students will attend their home school. However, that depends on how many want to return and the capacity of socially distanced facilities and teaching staff. As of last week, families in Phase 2A were being surveyed to get a count of the number that prefer to return to school.

“Schools will have different capacity to bring in their students,” said District Deputy Superintendent Enikia Morthel Ford. “There are tradeoffs.”

Home schools may be able to accommodate demand by using hybrid learning, Ford said. If not, some students may need to attend a different school, a “host school,” that has more capacity. Citing new challenges and cost, the District said they need between $5 million and $38 million, above normal expenses, to fully re-open. Some of this cost can be covered by existing funding, but the rest would be needed from the City, they said..

Given these constraints, some members of the public recommended holding classes outdoors.

The District’s re-opening budget specifies $1 million for outdoor classroom materials, but outside learning isn’t part of the current plan. While outdoor space may be used to reconfigure lunchtime and recess, “teaching and learning outdoors isn’t just moving a class outside,” Ford said. “There’s a shift in pedagogy. There are both educational and financial implications.”

All elementary school sites have been assessed for COVID safety requirements, SFUSD Chief Facilities Office Dawn Kamalanathan said.

The first 12 sites are being prepared for opening, including submitting applications to DPH. Planning is underway for the next 26 sites to re-open. In mid-January, planning begins for another 50 sites to open.

Many stakeholders were dissatisfied with the District’s plan. Parents feel the January to March 2021 timeline is too slow, and pointed to young children’s inability to learn online and middle and high school students being left with an entire year of remote instruction.

Labor relations have complicated the District's reopening plans. At the Dec. 8 meeting, United Educators President Susan Solomon expressed surprise and concern that labor negotiations would have to be finalized by Dec. 18 to meet the January re-opening date. Solomon asked what help could be offered. Another teacher’s union leader said the 10-day window between teachers and students returning is too short for preparing classrooms.

Agreements have yet to be reached with both the educators and administrators unions.

Safety continues to be a major sticking point in negotiations between the District and teachers. Commissioner Allison Collins, a teacher, pushed for mandatory masks for all students, on-demand surveillance testing for staff beyond the periodic required testing, and installing fans in windows to increase air flow and refreshing. Solomon asked that all students be COVID surveillance tested too, not just staff.

Curative, the testing company the District contracted with, bills staff members’ health insurance for their tests. Since the State hasn’t mandated that students be tested, health insurance won’t pay for it. “Testing students would have to be funded by the District,” Superintendent Vincent Matthews said.

The District is working with the Latino Task Force and the Department of Children, Youth & Their Families to set up and manage COVID-19 surveillance testing sites for staff at schools.

When students and staff return, daily symptoms monitoring will be part of the new procedures. Families will receive a registration packet and site-based orientation before returning to school so they are aware of and agree to follow safety protocols.

Without more data and information, SFUSD Commissioners couldn’t offer direction but were concerned about slowing down re-opening.

“We’ll move forward with what we think is best and come back with more information,” Matthews said. “It won’t slow down progress.”

Meanwhile, a group of Supervisors introduced a resolution on Dec. 15 urging the school district to develop a comprehensive plan for returning students to school.

The resolution, introduced by Supervisors Sandra Lee Fewer, Aaron Peskin, Rafael Mandelman, Ahsha Safai, Hillary Ronen and Norman Yee, cited long-term risks to children's mental and physical wellbeing from an extended closure of schools. Those risks are particularly acute for children with existing learning challenges, and pediatricians warn that long-term remote learning will widen inequalities in education. San Francisco public schools have been closed since March 2020.

Other Supervisors demurred on passing the resolution, which required a unanimous vote to pass. That sparked a furious response by Fewer, a former public school parent.

"There is not a plan to open up schools for all children; there is a plan to open up schools for a few children...there's no plan for middle school, and there's no plan for high school," she said. "For those of you who are public school parents, it's great that you have internet access, a home for your children, and a place for them to do distance learning."

"But man, you talk to some of these parents and some of these children, and go to some of these community learning hubs, it would break your heart," Fewer continued. "This is racist, and it's a you can close the door on these kids, or you can finally say, you know what? I'm going to forget about my political career and help these kids. But no, we're not there."

The resolution urging a comprehensive plan to reopen schools will be considered again by the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 22.

Image by Jake Buonemani
Image by Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup

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