By Dr. Adam Davis and Meredith W. Dodson
Special to The Examiner
“I am happy to see all our lovely kindergarten kids tomorrow morning. I have missed them greatly.”
Messages like this from San Francisco Unified School District teachers appeared in many parents’ inboxes on Sunday night, the eve of the return from winter break. These messages fill our hearts with warmth. We are indebted to the dedicated teachers educating and healing our students in this tumultuous time.
Our children have suffered so much from this pandemic. Learning loss is real and significant. We’re seeing unprecedented decreased performances in standardized testing and this hasn’t affected students equally. It’s our most vulnerable students, low income and English learners, who have had the largest dips. We’ve also seen a marked increase in mental health and behavioral issues including increased suicide attempts; so bad that the Surgeon General has declared a youth mental health crisis.
We have the opportunity to turn things around for our children now. The difference between omicron and the surges of 2020 and, even 2021, is great.
The vaccine is now widely available and we are thankful to live in San Francisco where the majority of our teachers and over 90% of our 12- to 17-year-olds are fully vaccinated. For this surge, our 5- to 11-year-olds also have access to the vaccine and nearly two-thirds of them have begun their regimen. We’re relieved the vaccine remains effective at preventing severe disease even in the face of the frustrating omicron variant. SFUSD has learned how to mitigate the risk with masking, indoor air filtration and ventilation, and even distancing or cohorting when necessary. We continued in-person schooling during the fall delta wave and barely experienced any in-school spread, far below the community rate.
Still, parents and educators alike have agreed the district’s response plan for the omicron surge could have been stronger, and we wish they had communicated better to families and staff so that we could have all felt more at ease about the return to school this week.
The next four to six weeks will be challenging. Not every parent returned their child to a classroom staffed by their own teacher. On Tuesday alone, 628 teachers were out, which is more than twice the number of teachers absent on a “normal” day. There’s more COVID in our community than ever before; and teachers, like other community members, are being quarantined. This is impacting our schools and causing severe strains on our staffing.
On Thursday, a number of SFUSD teachers protested the return to school by participating in a “sick out” and demanding two weeks of school closures, among other stipulations. There was no warning to families that their children might not have their teacher in the classroom, and no effort to bargain with the district on these demands. A strike of this nature is unwarranted and disappointing, and it is the teachers union’s (United Educators of San Francisco) duty to stop such a problematic work stoppage that will generate further learning disruptions and strains on an already stressed system.
While we wish the district had been more proactive in getting testing to staff and students prior to return and while we have recruited volunteers to assist with the distribution once the state supply arrives, we do not think the lack of testing should lead to a call to close schools.
We agree that in the ideal world routine testing during the surge would be part of our mitigation, but it’s no panacea. In high test environments like the United Kingdom, the NBA and Cornell University, we have not seen an abatement of spread. We know that with the mitigation steps we had in place in the fall (masking, air filters), we had virtually no in-school spread. We know vaccinated people are at very low risk of severe disease, making COVID risk comparable to seasonal flu.
Teachers are some of our most essential workers, like our city nurses and bus drivers and line cooks. We need them for The City to function, for our children to thrive. The data is clear that although the omicron case rate will be high in the community, closing schools will not dampen it. The costs of closing schools are immense with unclear benefit. It’s morally abhorrent to see leaders supporting virtual learning, while bars and restaurants remain open. We’re not asking for another shutdown; we’ve learned how to mitigate COVID risks.
We thank our teachers, staff and principals for heroically stepping up to fill the gaps during this bumpy return to school; their commitment to what’s best for San Francisco’s children does not go unnoticed.
We cannot continue the inexcusable fearmongering from some of our leaders. Kids need stability and adult leadership that puts their learning and health needs first, now more than ever. What kids and families need now is predictability, joy and deep learning.
We encourage students and staff to get vaccinated, wear a quality well fitted mask, turn on the air filter and enjoy learning in person, where we know they thrive best.
Dr. Adam Davis is a public school parent and pediatrician in San Francisco. Meredith W. Dodson is a public school parent and executive director of SF Parent Coalition.