School board member backs calls for return to full-time, in-person learning by the fall

School board member Jenny Lam has introduced a resolution committing San Francisco Unified School District to a full return to...

School board member Jenny Lam has introduced a resolution committing San Francisco Unified School District to a full return to in-person learning in the fall.

Lam’s resolution would direct SFUSD staff to plan with stakeholders a full-time, in-person schedule when the new school year begins in August, assuming coronavirus transmission rates continue to fall as vaccinations increase.

Students would retain the option to continue remote learning, either due to medical reasons or because they learn better in that format, under the terms of the resolution.

“I am excited as we work toward a 5 day full-time in-person learning starting in August,” Lam tweeted earlier this month. “Thank you to our families, students, educators, staff for their persistence. We can accomplish so much together!”

The resolution would be a stronger commitment than the district has been willing to make so far. Superintendent Vincent Matthews and Board President Gabriela Lopez said earlier this month in a joint statement that officials were committed to a full return for the fall, but did not specify if it would be full-time, five days a week.

“We want to let you know that we are committed to returning PK-12 students to in-person learning by the first day of the 2021-22 school year,” the officials wrote in a letter to the SFUSD community. “In the coming months we will be moving forward with planning that adheres to public health directives and includes remote learning options for students who may need to study virtually.”

Lam’s resolution fills in details sought by parents and pushed by parents’ group Decreasing the Distance. Organizer Meredith Dodson said parents have been “desperate” for the commitment around a full-time fall return and expect every board member to support it.

“It is essential that the board commit to returning all students for five full days of in-person school by the fall,” Dodson said. “Teachers and the adult population of San Francisco will all have been offered vaccination by then, and our kids can no longer tolerate the isolation and depression of screen learning.”

The district would have a backup plan under the resolution should transmission rates increase, as United Educators of San Francisco President Susan Solomon has warned could be needed.

“I just want to inject some realistic expectations into this discussion so that we can provide the best education for our students and so that we can make sure our educators are prepared,” Solomon said last week.

The board also discussed updates to spring in-person learning Tuesday. SFUSD will begin bringing priority students, students in up to fifth grade and those with disabilities, back to the physical classroom on April 12. A plan for middle and high school students has not yet been made public.

The district has said students will return four days a week to in-person learning if class space allows and two days a week if more students want to return than a classroom can hold.

A new partnership with testing company Color, replaced after the former vendor was deemed risky by federal officials, will allow student and staff testing to begin on April 5, according to a staff presentation.

It’s unclear how many students will return the classroom or how many city schools will be able to accommodate, but state health guidelines recently slashed distancing requirements from 6 feet to 3 feet, making it theoretically possible for more kids to return full-time. While SFUSD attorney Suzanne Solomon on Monday noted in court that the agreement with UESF requires parties to meet should health guidelines change, SFUSD general counsel Danielle Houck offered a different assessment.

“What we have agreed to do with elementary schools is we will try to accomplish 6 feet of distance and if that’s not possible, we will go with 4 feet,” Houck said on Tuesday. Four feet was the lowest required classroom distance under previous guidance.

Of the nearly 13,000 pre-kindergarten to second-grade students whose families responded to a survey, at least 90 percent stated a desire to return in-person. About 70 percent of families of students in grades 3-5 and in focal populations for older students stated the same desire, but 21 percent didn’t respond at all to the survey, which is now closed.

Just 35 percent of middle and high school families responded to the survey, with 53 percent saying they would return in-person if given the opportunity.

SFUSD would receive some $15 million to $18 million under Assembly Bill 86 signed earlier this month to incentivize faster reopenings — if they offer in-person learning to another grade and focal populations by May 15, officials said in discussion on Tuesday. Superintendent Vincent Matthews told board members adding another grade would come at the expense of bringing back focal populations by the April 26 deadline.

“In every way, we looked at it if we went that route…to bring back focal populations would be delayed,” Matthews said. “That shift can happen. It just means shifting resources from where we have right now.”

School board members Matt Alexander and Faauuga Moliga indicated support to meet the May 15 deadline to be eligible for state funding.

“$15 million to $18 million is not easy to come by,” Moliga said. “We have to deal with a budget deficit. I think we should definitely figure out if we can make this happen.”

Lam could not be reached for comment Tuesday in time for publication.

This article has been updated with additional statements made at Tuesday’s meeting.

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