San Francisco schools will not reopen by Jan. 25 after failing to reach labor deal by deadline

Teachers cite COVID surge, seek to delay reopening until city back in orange tier

The San Francisco Unified School District will not reopen by Jan. 25 as planned because it has not yet reached the needed agreement with the teachers union, officials said Friday.

SFUSD planned to bring back students in second grade or younger and those with disabilities for a hybrid schedule of in-person classes and distance learning — roughly 14,000 students — between Jan. 25 and March 22. The district has been under increasing pressure to reopen and must present a plan for middle and high school students in January.

But the district and its educator union were unable to reach an agreement by the Friday deadline officials said they needed to meet in order to reopen schools by Jan. 25.

“This pandemic has required us to live with a great deal of uncertainty and it’s simply not over yet,” said SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews. “I am disappointed that we cannot offer a guaranteed date for when we can resume in-person learning for our youngest and most vulnerable students. We will continue to work hard to offer a safe in-person learning opportunity to our students and will meet as much as possible with our labor partners to complete bargaining.”

Negotiations have been in full swing and progress made but the United Educators of San Francisco remain concerned about the record level of COVID-19 infections and the lack of data on family preference for in-person learning.

“We want to be very clear; we want to be back in our classrooms with our colleagues, students, and families,” UESF told its members Friday. “But we know we won’t get there through political pressure that focuses more on arbitrary dates and less on the real needs of our communities.”

The current surge in COVID-19 cases is a sticking point. San Francisco is currently in the state’s most restrictive purple COVID risk, and the Bay Area is under a second shutdown until at least Jan. 4. Schools may receive a waiver to open when a county is in the purple tier, and SFUSD submitted a letter of interest to the Department of Public Health seeking to do so last week, but labor groups want to delay reopening until The City reaches the orange tier, district officials said.

Oakland Unified School District also set a Jan. 25 date for students to return to in-person teaching but announced on Monday that it wouldn’t be possible due to the high transmission levels. The East Bay district did not set a new date, citing too much uncertainty.

Mayor London Breed called the SFUSD announcement “infuriating” and called for school leaders to continue to plan for reopening and work through the holidays to do so. She pointed to the lack of outbreaks at community learning hubs — which capped group sizes at 14 students and two adults to meet health guidelines — and in private schools.

“I can’t imagine how hard this is for our families and for our young people who haven’t been in the classroom since March and are falling further behind every single day,” Breed said in a statement. “We should not be creating a false choice between education and a safe return to classrooms. We can do both. We must do both.”

SFUSD surveyed families in the eligible age groups this month, preliminarily finding as of this week that 58 percent plan to attend in person; about 28 percent were flexible about which location their child returned to and 59 percent flexible about the teacher.

The response rate was at 69 percent overall, with some elementary schools having high or complete response rates. The survey was met with an 82 percent response rate from white families, of which 81 percent said they plan to return.

Asian families had a 75 percent response rate showing 36 percent plan to return in person, while 45 percent of Black families responded and 62 percent of those who responded preferred to return in person. Of the nearly 60 percent of Latino families who responded, 62 percent plan to return to the classroom.

About 43 percent of English learners, out of the 64 percent who responded, plan to return while 58 percent of special education students, 58 percent of whom responded, indicated plans to return.

Among economically disadvantaged families, 58 percent responded and 46 percent plan to return in person. Non-economically disadvantaged families had a 74 percent response rate and 61 percent plan to return in person.

Luz Rodriguez, mother of three SFUSD children and president of the English Learners Advisory Committee, said she does not plan on sending her kids back to the classroom due to concern about the COVID infection rate. She’s also concerned with the long-term cost of reopening, which is expected to cost up to $44.8 million total at a time when the district is facing a $169.7 million deficit over the next two fiscal years.

Depending on how many students return, SFUSD will need to hire more educators and custodians due to spacing and cleaning needs. The district currently has capacity for about 15,000 daily seats as of now.

“We know that what they’re pushing us to do is going to hurt us in the long run,” Rodriguez said through a translator. “Right now, we shouldn’t be thinking of sending our children [to classrooms], we should be thinking of how we can take care of them.”

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