District debates how many students to bring back on campus this spring

With limited COVID-safe capacity, more students could mean less in-person learning time

San Francisco school officials must decide whether to bring back more students with less in-person time for each of them or guarantee more in-person time by continuing to limit which students return.

The dilemma was laid out at Tuesday’s San Francisco Unified School District meeting, where staffpresented a detailed reopening plan and sought direction from school board members.

If SFUSD attempts to bring back all elementary school students this spring and too many are willing to return, there will be fewer daily seats available given limited space and the need for social distancing. That could reduce the number of days each student can attend in person.

“There are too many variables at play,” Enikia Morthel Ford, SFUSD’s deputy superintendent of instruction, told the Board of Education. “What we know is to add any additional students we’re going to have to be really strategic and we’re going to have to prioritize in a different way.”

SFUSD has said it will prioritize bringing the youngest learners, now up to second grade, as well as students with disabilities back to the classroom. Under the latest plan, roughly 14,000 students in those groups would be phased into a hybrid schedule between Jan. 25 and March 22 and beyond.

The next set of priority students, known as phase 2B, will be homeless and foster youth, students who live in public housing, and those with limited online engagement, making up some 5,600 students.

Third, fourth, and fifth graders — including those in phase 2B — account for about 12,500 students.

The district estimated it has the capacity for about 15,000 daily seats, when accounting for safe distancing and other precautionary measures. Staff must also choose whether to plan around keeping students in their home schools or to send students to different “host schools” that have enough capacity.

Board member Alison Collins said she would prefer keeping students at their home sites and expanding priority groups, while Board member Faauuga Moliga, a social worker, leaned more on bringing all students back and noted that struggles at home with distance learning cuts across socioeconomic lines.

But board members largely sought more information on the pros and cons before giving a direction, like how many families are weighing whether to return.

Surveys were sent out to families in phase 2A and are due by Friday. Families that choose to return would receive a registration packet no later than 10 days before returning, staff said.

“I’m reluctant to give real direction because we just don’t have the data,” said Board President Mark Sanchez.

Superintendent Vincent Matthews said not offering direction Tuesday wouldn’t slow the process down and that they would simply come back with a recommendation.

In November, school board members unanimously approved a resolution that set a timeline for priority students to begin returning in-person by Jan. 25. Part of the resolution required district officials to present a detailed plan for all elementary school students in December followed by a plan for middle and high school students in January.

But the plan presented on Tuesday indicated that the first group of priority students wouldn’t be settled into school until March — about halfway through the semester and a year after all students were sent home due to the pandemic.

Several parents expressed disappointment with the slow timeline. If priority students are not back until late March, thousands of other students will end up spending more than a full year under distance learning.

“Parents have been counting on the district for something better than this,” said Meredith Dodson. “This plan, it leaves many more questions than answers for our 53,000 students.”

SFUSD has spent about $6.7 million on coronavirus-related costs so far but will need another $5 million for the first phase of bringing students back. It could cost up to $44.8 million total to bring all students back in person, largely due to custodial and educator staffing.

The district faces a $75.4 million deficit for the next fiscal year and $94.3 million for the 2022-23 year. It may still tap into a $10.4 million COVID-19 reserve and could receive city help for issues like cleaning, staff said.

SFUSD is still negotiating with unions but those talks must be complete by Dec. 18 to meet the Jan. 25 deadline with schedules finalized on Jan. 8, staff said. United Educators of San Francisco said Tuesday that leadership just found out the day before and could use support in making that deadline a reality.

“Let us think together about the implications,’ said Susan Solomon, UESF executive director. “This work of negotiations takes many, many hours. It’s an elaborate process especially because of covid.”

Educators will be tested before returning and every one to two weeks after, said Mele Lau Smith. Assessments of all buildings were completed last week and repairs for the first batch of phase 2A students have been made.

The Board of Education will meet again next Tuesday.

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