On the one-year anniversary of the last full day of in-person classes at San Francisco city schools, students, parents and educators called for an immediate return to full-time in-person learning.
Organized by the parent-led group Decreasing the Distance, Saturday’s rally was the most recent in the on-going campaign by some families to get back in the classroom after a year of distance learning. The organization is asking the school board for a “binding commitment” that students will have the option to attend in-person classes five days a week by the time the next school year rolls around.
The San Francisco United School District recently released a plan to begin reopening schools in April for elementary school students, along with special education students and others in vulnerable populations. However, there is no date set yet for middle- and high-school students and it is not clear that the district will be able to accommodate all students who wish to return this spring. Nor is there a clear plan for the fall.
“We’re seeing cities around the country doing it, and we’re really the last major city to commit to a full reopening for our students. We’ve also got the lowest COVID rates of any major city in the country,” said Meredith Dodson, co-founder of Decreasing the Distance. “Indefinite distance learning is not public education.”
Mayor London Breed, state Sen. Scott Wiener, Assemblymember David Chiu and other public officials came out in support at the rally.
“The idea that our older students are not going to have any schooling this year, and that even for the younger ones it’ll be limited, is just not enough,” Wiener said. “Teachers are getting vaccinated, we know what needs to happen to reopen safely. The science is clear on this. This is time to reopen.”
For attendees, the march from Alamo Square to Civic Center was not just a call to action, but a chance to interact with other families. Kids made signs from glitter glue and markers together, played tag on Hayes Street and howled as the crowd chanted “We miss our teachers!”
Eva Chung said she joined the movement not only as a mom with two virtual learners at home, but as a concerned citizen of San Francisco. Her second grader held a sign that read “Zoom makes me cry” in marker.
“My daughter has gone from being a very engaged in-person learner with a year ahead, to not wanting to be on the screen and crying every single morning and being completely disengaged,” Chung said. “I hope that this can raise awareness. We’re a progressive city, and we care about equal access for all citizens.”
Assemblymember Chiu said this movement is a step toward changing San Francisco’s reputation of being unfriendly to families. As the father of a pre-K student, his support felt like the obvious choice to make, he said.
“This pandemic has laid bare inequities in so many areas, including how we have not prioritized families,” Chiu said. “This movement has really come out of that, and for parents to really engage in the level that they’re engaged in right now is so important for how we rebuild our schools and move our kids towards the future.”
The march didn’t draw unanimous support, however: some attendees, like Nadia Rahman, fell victim to an unidentified person throwing eggs at the crowd during the march on Hayes Street. Rahman said she wasn’t surprised the movement was met with criticism, as reopening schools has turned into a politically divisive issue.
“There should be consensus around this, but with the different parties involved, it’s become a really polarized issue,” Rahman said. “I think that’s what motivated the person.”
Mayor Breed, who has been vocal in recent months in her criticism of the school board, told the crowd that the movement was not about attacking anyone, but about doing right for the children of San Francisco. The city has had a conservative approach throughout the pandemic, and she said she wouldn’t encourage reopening schools unless it was safe to do so.
“It’s not always sometimes politically popular to take the stance that so many of us elected leaders have taken. But at the end of the day, I will not do this job in fear of losing it, especially when it comes to the health and the safety and the well-being of our children,” Breed said.
Sporting her purple Galileo High School jacket from her time as a student in the SFUSD, Breed said she hopes to open up summer school opportunities and have in-person classes for all students next fall.
“Our kids and the future of our city is at a crossroads. We can be this great city, or we can retreat and be divided and get nowhere,” Breed said. “Today, you all have come together like never before, for the health and well-being of not just your children, but for all kids.”