A child sits near signs outside Jose Ortega Elementary School before a news conference to reopen SFUSD schools on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

A child sits near signs outside Jose Ortega Elementary School before a news conference to reopen SFUSD schools on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

School district and unions reach agreement to return to classrooms

Tentative deal would see staff return when city reaches red tier for COVID-19 risk

The San Francisco Unified School District has reached a tentative agreement with its unions to return to teaching in classrooms when The City reaches the “red” risk tier for COVID-19, provided that vaccines and other safety agreements are available to school employees.

The deal, announced Sunday morning by a group of unions representing district teachers and staff, is largely similar to the bargaining position outlined by unions on Friday, which does not include any return to school while The City remains in the highest “purple” risk tier, as defined by state health officials.

The agreement allows a return to in-person teaching in the red tier as long as vaccines are available to on-site and in-person staff. It also allows for a return to-in person instruction in the lower orange tier without vaccine availability and calls for safety precautions including protective gear for students and staff, social distancing in classrooms and offices, regular testing and health screenings, ventilation upgrades, cleaning and a contact tracing plan.

“This agreement sets the stage to safely reopen schools in San Francisco,” Susan Solomon, president of the United Educators of San Francisco, said in a statement Sunday. “Now we need City and State officials to step up and make vaccines available to school staff now, while UESF continues to focus on finalizing agreements around classroom instruction, schedules, and continuing to improve remote learning for the students and families who choose not to return even with these standards in place.”

District officials have said repeatedly that they need help from The City to provide adequate testing and contact tracing services. The district had a contract with Curative to provide testing for staff but had to suspend it and launch a competitive search for a new provider last month after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning that the test posed a risk of false negatives. State guidelines now recommend testing students every two weeks while in the purple and red tiers.

The district has been under increasing pressure from city officials and many parents to reopen classrooms, including a lawsuit filed by City Attorney Dennis Herrera on Wednesday calling for the district to present an adequate plan for reopening as required under state law. City Attorney’s Office spokesperson John Cote reiterated on Sunday that schools may safely reopen now if they adhere to proper precautions, and said that more details on the deal, like scheduling, are still needed to determine if it satisfies the concerns raised in the lawsuit.

“This is progress, but it’s not enough,” Cote said. “We have not seen the details of any agreement, and so far this raises more questions than answers. The school district would need to share the whole plan and show us that it is concrete and meets the requirements of state law. Vaccination is not a prerequisite.”

Solomon said Sunday’s tentative deal was not influenced by the lawsuit.

“They weren’t really connected,” Solomon said. “We were planning our [Friday] press conference because we had bargaining. The whole lawsuit’s unfortunate but especially the timing, when we were actually making progress.”

Families and officials like Mayor London Breed also held a press conference outside Jose Ortega Elementary School on Thursday, called for the district to reach a labor agreement by Feb. 18.

Leaders of the parent group Decreasing the Distance, which formed in response to the continuing school closure, welcomed the deal but said they still had questions about the timeline for reopening.

“We remain firm that we want to see a deal that incorporates public health expert guidance, to get students back this spring. It depends on the details, but it’s possible this agreement doesn’t get kids back until the fall,” the group said in a statement. “We still have many questions that we hope to have answered as details are shared with us.”

The unions’ push to reopen when COVID-19 levels fall has been criticized by those pointing to the fact that many private and parochial schools have already reopened and appear to be operating safely. However, San Francisco is not the only city where their view holds sway. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s office said this week that students shouldn’t return in-person until Alameda County coronavirus levels reach the orange tier, the Mercury News reported.

The district’s current plan calls for a gradual, phased return to a hybrid schedule starting with the youngest students and those with disabilities. But officials have said that district facilities cannot accommodate more than about 14,000 students under social distancing protocols, making it highly unlikely that older students will return to school any time soon unless there is a sharp improvement in the pandemic.

The district had at one point hoped to begin reopening on Jan. 25, but had to postpone that date after it was unable to reach an agreement with the unions on working conditions. It currently has a target date of March 25, but it is unclear whether the conditions outlined in the tentative deal announced Sunday will allow that.

“I want to thank all of the district employees who have been working for months to get our schools ready so that we can return safely as soon as possible,” said Superintendent Dr. Vincent Matthews. “This agreement wouldn’t have been possible without their efforts. I’m looking forward to opening our school doors for more staff to begin preparations to welcome students back.”

SFUSD must still negotiate around hybrid instruction and details around middle and high school students and grapple with transportation separately. Solomon said they hoped to have some type of in-person component for students unable to return, like tutoring or counseling by appointment.

Unions will undergo different contract ratification procedures in the coming weeks, while the Board of Education is expected to vote on the agreement on Feb. 16.

This is a developing story and will be updated with additional information.

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