School district officials are debating whether they can safely return to in-person teaching in the fall.(Shutterstock)

School district officials are debating whether they can safely return to in-person teaching in the fall. (Shutterstock)

As city schools weigh reopening, doubts about safety dominate conversations with teachers

‘If I don’t feel safe as an educator, how am I going to be prepared to teach?’

As San Francisco school officials debate whether they can reopen in August, one key group remains skeptical that the district can keep them and students safe: teachers.

Thirty percent of teachers feel ready to return in person, but 29 percent don’t feel ready, and 40 percent are unsure, according to a rolling survey conducted by the United Educators of San Francisco and obtained by the San Francisco Examiner.

With just over a month until classes resume on Aug. 17th, The San Francisco Unified School District has yet to make its final decision on what the fall semester will look like, although some officials are warning it’s unlikely all students will be able to return to the classroom right away.

“It’s a bit late in the game,” said UESF President Susan Solomon. “People really need to know if buildings are going to open. If they’re going to open at all, what are the guarantees that people will be safe and healthy? That’s the major question.”

SFUSD is hosting various town halls throughout the week coupled with working group meetings, leading up to a report at the Board of Education July 14. Fall learning could either remain remote, go in-person, or be a hybrid of the two. But a plan won’t be finalized until July 28, leaving educators and families unsure of what to expect.

The pressure to reopen schools from some quarters is intense. Online classes were poorly received by many families, who struggled to homeschool their children while working and complained of a lack of communication. In addition, the Trump administration on Tuesday demanded schools open fully in the fall and rejected hybrid proposals.

At educator-focused town halls Monday and Tuesday, however, teachers raised questions about safety in the face of budget cuts, student access to technology, making distance learning equitable, and back-up plans in the case of an outbreak.

Children account for nine percent of coronavirus cases in San Francisco, and many believe they do not spread coronavirus as readily, but adult transmission remains a strong concern.

Elena Allen, a teacher at Thurgood Marshall Academic High School, is at a lower risk of experiencing a severe case of coronavirus or exposing high-risk family members. Still, being inside without proper ventilation, including rooms with sealed windows, and a lack of guarantees that personal protective equipment would be available doesn’t put her mind at ease.

“Personally, I would be willing to go back to school if some [precautions] were happening,” Allen said. But “I don’t have faith in that. If I don’t feel safe as an educator, how am I going to be prepared to teach?”

Part of that preparation includes time and resources. Two-thirds of the roughly 1,500 educators who responded to the UESF survey said schools shouldn’t reopen if the district has less money.

A national estimate calculated at least $27 million in extra costs to reopen schools safely, which doesn’t account for San Francisco’s higher costs. SFUSD is already grappling with a structural deficit prediction of $66.3 million by fiscal year 2021-2022.

That puts furloughs on the table, which Allen said were proposed to take place during the preparation time before the school year despite educators needing more time to plan for potentially both in-person and online courses. The district may also push back the first day of school, Superintendent Vincent Matthews said at the town hall on Tuesday.

Board of Education President Mark Sanchez predicts schools could start with a hybrid model, with both distance and in-person learning, and open fully later in the school year. But he acknowledged that things could change drastically the first week of school.

“With the guidelines we have, I can see us opening to a portion of our students and then have distance learning,” said Sanchez, a teacher in Daly City. “We might land on a certain cohort of students that come back to school.”

Younger students, particularly those in pre-kindergarten to kindergarten, could be prioritized. “Clearly, where distance learning does not have any impact at all, it’s just a loss,” Sanchez added, referring to the challenges in teaching the lower grades online.

Board of Education Commissioners Alison Collins and Rachel Norton have also expressed deep doubt that the schools can reopen in some capacity by Aug. 17. Collins has suggested beginning with better distance learning across the board and scaling up, while Norton has called reopening “an impossible task.”

The greatest concern about a hybrid model among 62 percent of UESF survey respondents was how it would increase the demands on teachers’ time.

At the same time, educators are highly concerned with providing students’ basic needs and improving access to the devices and internet connections that made remote learning possible. Teachers like Allen want more attention paid to students in neighborhoods like Bayview Hunters Point, Mission, South of Market and Tenderloin, where fewer have internet access.

Students with disabilities have also lost crucial in-person attention, behavior analyst Megan Caluza noted.

“We can do distance learning and that’s safer, but we don’t have a plan to ensure that all students have education,” Caluza said. “Our students who need more than what we offered them in the spring, we have to serve them in person. We don’t have a clear plan in July, that scares me. “

UESF is also focused on preventing layoffs, particularly among paraeducators who offer support to students.

With a little over a month until the fall semester begins, Allen feels the district needs to choose the overall model as soon as possible so educators and staff can begin preparing and have the details arranged after. Matthews said they hoped to have updates by the July 14th meeting before the fall plan is finalized on July 28.

“We realize it’s a short timeframe between [July] 28th and Aug. 17,” Matthews said Tuesday. “Our hope is on [July] 14th to give people a much better sense. If schools are open, they will be opening in as safe a manner as possible.”

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