School board backs continued distance learning for fall

After a lengthy discussion Tuesday, the Board of Education is backing plans to continue with distance learning when students return...

After a lengthy discussion Tuesday, the Board of Education is backing plans to continue with distance learning when students return for the fall semester.

School board members will not vote on a specific plan until July 28, but went along with Superintendent Vincent Matthews’ recommendation at Tuesday’s meeting.

“We’re going to announce tomorrow that the board is generally in agreement with the direction we’re going and we will be going with distance learning,” Matthews said.

After hosting town halls last week, San Francisco Unified School District staff members recommended starting the academic year with distance learning and gradually opening to a hybrid model, assuming the health department allows it. It would take at least eight weeks to start phasing in a hybrid model, according to Matthews.

The board direction comes as coronavirus hospitalizations are on the upswing in San Francisco.

Even before the meeting, Board members Rachel Norton, Alison Collins and Board President Mark Sanchez had expressed doubt that schools could reopen in some capacity on Aug. 17, and others echoed those doubts on Tuesday.

“It’s clear distance learning on Aug. 17 is the best approach,” said Board member Jenny Lam on Tuesday. “I think we all know this and it’s hard to embrace, but COVID is here for a long while. We as an education system are going to have to be adaptive and flexible.”

However, a small group of students may be considered for in-person instruction, and several parents encouraged the Board of Education on Tuesday to prioritize younger grades, particularly pre-school to second or third grade, who have a tougher time staying focused on a screen.

“Teaching our children became a full-time job for me because she is not capable or motivated to be on a computer all day,” said parent Supryia Ray. “It’s an immense stress for us. We had a hard enough time and are actually quite advantaged.”

Ray and a handful of others advocated for a return to in-person learning, but most parents and teachers who called into public comment seemed to acknowledge the reality of returning to distance learning.

“It’s imperative we start with distance learning until those COVID numbers are down,” said Sarah Wildon. “Please pour everything you have [into it].”

Some also urged the district to set up small outdoor meetings with students or discussed forming their own private “pods” or microschools.

Student delegate Shavonne Hines-Foster joined the call to use outdoor space, noting that many students relied on school as a break from their home life, its resources to maintain wellness, and those seeking refuge from homelessness or domestic violence.

The Department of Public Health issued guidelines last week that outlined a lengthy list of precautions. The school day would be punctuated by a rigorous regime of handwashing, mandatory face coverings, distancing requirements, and more.

Even before the guidelines from The City were released, SFUSD estimated that preparing facilities for similar precautions under a hybrid model would take 1o to 12 weeks. The stockpile of supplies is not ready and protocols for screening and isolation are not in place for any in-person scenario.

Superintendent Vincent Matthews emphasized that the choice to return ultimately isn’t theirs, but The City’s health officials.

“We’re still under an order that requires schools to remain closed,” Matthews said. “We couldn’t go back to school if we wanted to because the order is still in place. The guidelines are [for] once the students are back on site, this is what you should consider.”

The district faces logistical obstacles. SFUSD’s custodial staff can clean and disinfect 3.2 million square feet a day, for example, but the district has nearly 8 million square feet. Plus, shuttling students back and forth with proper distancing would be tough when public transportation is expected to be running at 30 percent of its normal capacity.

Adding more buses to the district’s fleet to maintain distance would cost another $25 million, nearly double the current $32 million budget. Other local costs have not yet been calculated, but a national estimate has indicated it could cost around $27 million to reopen schools with coronavirus precautions.

SFUSD is grappling with a structural deficit predicted to reach $66.3 million by fiscal year 2021-22.

But distance learning leaves much to be desired and improvements to the process would be required before classes return Aug. 17.

School officials in Los Angeles and San Diego on Monday opted to resume distance learning, while some Orange County leaders are pushing for a reopening without mandatory face coverings.

This story has been updated and revised from print edition.

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