Dr. Vincent Matthews, superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, is seen speaking at a news conference where the district announced the closure of Lowell High School on Thursday, March 5, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Dr. Vincent Matthews, superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, is seen speaking at a news conference where the district announced the closure of Lowell High School on Thursday, March 5, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Details sparse as SFUSD commits to fall reopening

Superintendent Vincent Matthews said Tuesday the San Francisco Unified School District is committed to returning students to in-person learning by the time school starts in the fall, but left questions unanswered about whether they would return full-time.

Speaking at a Board of Education meeting Tuesday, Matthews said that with vaccination rates increasing, the district was developing plans to reopen all schools for in-person classes, although he noted that it would adhere to public health directives and include remote learning options.

“We know that many students have been struggling,” Matthews said, noting the disproportionate negative impacts of distance learning on some students. “As a city and as a school district, we need to prioritize safely returning our students to in-person learning.”

The commitment – one that Matthews first made in a joint statement with Board President Gabriela López on Friday – fell short of what some parents are asking for, which is a full-time, five-day a week schedule for all students including middle and high schoolers.

After Matthews spoke, United Educators of San Francisco President Susan Solomon called into the board meeting to warn that there was no guarantee the COVID-19 pandemic would not resurge before the fall or that a variant would prove resistant to vaccines. She said the district needed to prepare for all eventualities.

“I just want to inject some realistic expectations into this discussion so that we can provide the best education for our students and so that we can make sure our educators are prepared,” Solomon said.

The statement on fall learning came after months of pressure from parents and political leaders dissatisfied with the pace of the school district’s progress toward reopening, including a lawsuit filed by City Attorney Dennis Herrera. The school board also faces a recall effort and a potential ballot measure that would replace it with an appointed body.

Teachers advocated for priority access to vaccines, testing and other health and safety precautions in lengthy contract negotiations that culminated in a deal allowing in-person classes to resume on April 12 for a limited cohort of students, starting with the very youngest and those in some special education classes. The district has previously said it is unlikely most secondary students will return to the classroom this year, although it is offering spaces to some in specific groups such as those who are homeless.

The reopening plan calls for some students to attend in-person four days a week and others two days a week, depending how many in each class are interested in returning. The district has said that social distancing requirements will limit the number of students that can be accommodated in each classroom.

The parent group Decreasing the Distance, which formed in recent months to pressure the school board, held a rally on Saturday and sent a letter to district officials on Monday signed by a number of elected officials calling for a return in the fall to a full-time, five-day, in-person schedule for all students.

A number of commenters at the meeting also pressured district officials to commit explicitly to five full days a week in person in the fall. Several pointed out that with private school registration deadlines approaching, the district risks seeing its enrollment drop as parents give up and switch to other options. Many private schools have been open for some months now.

Decreasing the Distance organizer Meredith Dodson said she believed “if it was up to Matthews” students would return five days a week, but expressed dismay at Solomon’s remarks.

“I don’t know how to tell parents how to hold onto hope anymore,” Dodson said in a text message. “This is bad.”

Matthews recently announced his pending retirement, and a number of speakers at the meeting thanked him for his efforts, crediting him with trying to return students to the classroom and seeming to stand apart from the school board.

Matthews, however, rejected the comparison and the attempts to separate him from the board.

“It’s not Dr. Matthews doing this and the board not doing something. We’re all in this together,” Matthews said. “This board has pushed and pushed hard to get as many students back as possible.”

“The battle is against COVID, not against each other,” he reminded the audience.

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