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Unions Push Back on 'Pressure' to Reopen San Francisco Schools to In-Person Learning

Updated: Dec 23, 2020

  • The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on a resolution asking SFUSD to develop a plan to reopen schools for in-person instruction

  • A plan put forth by the District, which would have reopened schools in phases starting January 25, was scuttled after negotiations with the teacher's union failed to yield a compromise

  • City officials and frustrated parents have called for more transparency in the labor talks

On Tuesday, San Francisco Supervisors attempted again to urge San Francisco Unified School District to reopen schools to in-person learning that accords with public health standards, while unions pushed back against the pressure.

At a special meeting, Supervisors voted unanimously on a resolution asking the District to develop a plan to reopen schools as soon as possible next year. Although the resolution has no real enforceability, the vote became another flashpoint for long-simmering frustrations over the school district's lack of a reopening plan for its roughly 55,000 students. San Francisco public schools have been closed since March.

Earlier this month, SFUSD submitted a letter of intent to re-open in phases to the SF Department of Public Health. However, just days later, Superintendent Vincent Matthews announced that due to unsuccessful negotiations with the teacher's union, the reopening plan would be further delayed. Likewise, in a recent update to its members, United Educators of San Francisco (UESF) said it “does not see a return to in-person learning while the County remains in the purple tier.”

Owing to an aggressive surge in new COVID cases, San Francisco was placed into California's purple risk tier last last month. State and City health officials have said schools that are already open may continue to operate, and other schools can apply to reopen with appropriate COVID safety requirements in place.

Mayor London Breed called the labor impasse "infuriating," noting that the City's 91 private and parochial schools and 78 in-person learning hubs have been open for months with no reported outbreaks.

In its update, the UESF said that recent legislation and resolutions to reopen schools, such as the bill proposed by San Francisco Assemblymember Phil Ting that would require public schools to reopen when case counts drop, demonstrate “an overly simplified understanding of what school districts, its workers, and families need in order to safely return.” Instead, the union said proposed that “our elected officials can support us by working towards achieving the demands we have presented to the District.”

But what those specific demands are is unclear.

Supervisor Catherine Stefani called for transparency in labor negotiations: "It’s unconscionable that we don’t even have a plan. People all over the world have found ways to continue education safely,” she said. “What’s the source of disagreement? Why have negotiations broken down? What’s the solution?”

City Supervisors have no jurisdiction over SFUSD, but their resolution urging re-opening, introduced by Supervisor Sandra Fewer, asks that District leaders and educators collaborate to outline re-opening resource needs that can be met through public, private, philanthropic and City support.

A parent member of the public echoed the push for transparency, saying: “otherwise we can’t advocate or speak. It feels like we won’t be back in school by August.”

Labor negotiations are typically confidential, but some issues of concern arose at the District’s Dec. 8 board meeting.

At that Board meeting, Commissioner Allison Collins, who is also 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. UESF President Susan Solomon asked that all students be COVID surveillance tested too, not just staff. Another union representative said the 10-day window between teachers and students returning is too short for preparing classrooms.

According to the UESF update recently sent to members, an agreement was reached this week on substitute teacher health benefits, and "progress: was made on Special Education Assessment Centers, and working terms and conditions for paraeducators. But they have not reached agreement on hybrid instruction.

The UESF update decried what the union called "political pressure" and “arbitrary dates” found in the District's phased reopening plan, and directed members to a sign a joint petition through the San Francisco Labor Council. Other issues cited in the letter were local infection trends, and the results of a recent survey that UESF believes requires gaining a clearer understanding of the needs of families of color.

Another joint meet-and-confer session is scheduled for next week.


Image by Jake Buonemani
Image by Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup

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