Physical distancing is among the many issues San Francisco Unified School District is taking into account during planning to return to in-person learning. (Shutterstock)

Physical distancing is among the many issues San Francisco Unified School District is taking into account during planning to return to in-person learning. (Shutterstock)

Getting elementary students back in classrooms

Health, safety, scheduling guidelines must be considered


There is a lot to consider as we plan for when our students return to school buildings. Today I want to talk to you about an important topic we’ve been discussing a lot — the instructional schedule for our elementary school students. Simply put, we’re trying to determine the number of days and hours our elementary school students in a general education program can receive in-person instruction once schools resume in person.

San Francisco Unified School District is committed to reopening as many schools as possible for in-person instruction as soon as all the necessary and agreed upon conditions are met, including prioritizing school staff for vaccines, moving out of the purple tier and having the infrastructure for adequate staff and student surveillance testing.

Physical distancing requirements prevent the district from providing five full days of instruction each week for every child at every elementary school, but the district’s highest priority is to provide all students who wish to attend in-person instruction with as many days per week and as many hours per day of instruction as possible while also adhering to physical distancing requirements.

SFUSD is planning to phase-in returning students at the school site in which they are currently enrolled. Many of our families have expressed a desire to return to in-person learning.

Our goal is to maximize in-person learning as much as possible. We have also committed to families in our Phase 2A group that they can choose between in-person or to remain in distance learning. So why can’t we just go back to a normal school day?

State and local public health guidelines encourage six feet of distance between all persons in every classroom. This means approximately 90% of our elementary classrooms can accommodate only 14 students and still meet the six feet distancing requirement. Though class sizes in SFUSD are low compared to other districts, there is a maximum of 22 students per classroom in grades TK-3 and a maximum of 32 per classroom in grades 4-5 (actual class sizes vary by school and class enrollment).

So the problem is, no matter how many students want to return to in-person classes, only 14 of as many as 22 or, for upper elementary, 14 of as many as 32 students, may be in a classroom together at one time.

These classroom capacity constraints, along with physical distancing, will prevent us from accommodating all students five full days a week or from creating a school experience that reasonably approximates a normal school day/week this school year.

Because we want to maximize in-person learning, we have worked for months to try and find the best option for students and families. We have surveyed families and consulted with staff regarding their preferences — all while following the most current public health guidelines.

We are faced with a series of difficult choices. Our schools and classrooms are only so big and have only so many rooms. The pandemic requires us to think about and use our school space differently.

For example, here are some of the trade-offs.

If we prioritize keeping students with their current teachers, which many would prefer, we must also limit the hours of in-person learning for students. Since some students will still be in distance learning, teachers will need to teach their students who are learning remotely as well as those who are in person. How do we ensure enough hours of synchronous instruction for students who must remain remote given that their teacher must divide their time between in-person and remote?

If we instead choose to prioritize the length of the in-person school day, some students will be assigned to new classes and start working with a different teacher. While not ideal, many families have indicated they would accept a change like this if it means more in-person learning.

And, depending on how many families from a given school site wish to return, some students may receive only two days of instruction a week in order to accommodate all the students at the school who elect to return for in-person instruction.

As I share this, we are still finalizing plans in consultation with our teachers’ union. We are approaching this dilemma with the following values in mind:

* Return the most students to in-person instruction as soon as possible

* Provide as many hours of in-person instruction per day and week as possible

* Provide students with qualified experienced educators to the greatest extent possible

Hopefully we will be able to share an update soon for all those elementary students and families who are eagerly awaiting the return to in-person learning.

Vincent Matthews is the superintendent of schools for the San Francisco Unified School District. He is a guest columnist.

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