Demand for at-home learning was much higher than San Francisco schools expected this fall, causing a number of logistics issues that have left some children in limbo or still waiting for the school year to begin.
The San Francisco Unified School District is struggling to accommodate all students whose families sought to keep them learning remotely out of uneasiness over coronavirus transmission. District staff initially planned an online program for about 450 students, or one percent of the student population, deemed “medically fragile” under federal guidance, with the remaining students expected to be back in person.
Instead, 735 students applied and were accepted, district staff said Monday. And in July, state lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 130, allowing independent instruction for children at risk for in-person instruction as determined by a parent or guardian. Just a couple weeks before the school year began, the district had to add another 1,200 seats.
All in all, more than 1,900 students have been offered spots in the online programs, which were not quite ready to roll. That’s left some students without instructions or curriculum to learn from as their parents keep them at home due to safety concerns.
“We didn’t have the lead time to thoughtfully launch and implement this program,” said Enikia Ford-Morthel, SFUSD deputy superintendent of instruction, at a school board meeting on Monday. “The constraints around resources and staffing is real. There’s a huge crisis in staffing in education.”
Despite those setbacks, staffing is set now for the Online Learning Program for medically vulnerable students. But the On Demand Learning Program for parents who feel in-person learning is too risky for their children still needs another 55 educators, as dozens more vacancies exist for educators in-person, Ford-Morthel estimated. She said they hoped to leverage existing staff at sites the online students are familiar with.
SFUSD was unable to provide demographic information on students seeking remote learning in time for publication, but staff mentioned very few are in high school. There is also an indication the online preference is strong among Chinese families living in communal housing. The Chinatown Community Development Center surveyed 294 families living in Single Room Occupancy units before the school year, 70 percent of whom opposed sending their children for in-person learning.
Nearly 900 students accepted for either program have yet to confirm their participation by signing the agreement. Some may be unaware or haven’t accessed the agreement but others are having trouble understanding what it entails and whether it’s the right move, as the schedule entails far less live teaching than distance learning.
Monolingual families, in particular, fear their children will fall behind without hands-on support and staff to connect to. Some parents reported to school board members on Monday that more than a month went by and they either haven’t received updates on their application status or received school work for their children to do and learn from.
“They’re in this dilemma,” said Jen Chan, resident services manager at CCDC, which owns and runs SROs. “Some of them might still be enrolled in their current school just taking the risk. Some parents are home trying to teach them. It puts a lot of mental health anxiety on the families as well.”
Nearly 500 students accepted for the online program returned to the physical classroom since being accepted, while 577 signed off for remote learning.
School and public health officials have worked to assure families that in-person learning is safe and COVID-19 cases among youth are dropping. The Department of Public Health determined that San Francisco schools have seen no COVID-19 outbreaks, defined as “three or more cases in non-related households in which the source of infection occurred at the school.” As of Sept. 10, about 90 percent of kids between 12-17 years old have been fully vaccinated.
School board members Jenny Lam, Gabriela López and Alison Collins have met with SRO families in Chinatown to hear concerns over testing access and distancing in schools, Han said. Lam said the focus is on understanding concerns and updating families on safety measures and guidelines to build confidence in sending children in person.
“That’s why it’s so important that we keep consistent communication so families know what we are doing to keep our students safe,” Lam said. “We know that we need to do better in strengthening the communication, ramping up the staffing and implementation of the program.”