After months of controversy and with bargaining over reopening plans still underway, School Board President Gabriéla Lopez announced Sunday that the San Francisco Unified School District will put plans to rename 44 schools on hold until students are back in school.
The renaming process, launched in 2018, has come under fire not only for the recommendations of a committee to rename schools including Lincoln High School and Dianne Feinstein Elementary School but for its poor timing, when the district and many students are in crisis. It has also drawn at least one lawsuit from attorneys arguing that the board violated various legal procedures in approving the committee’s recommendations.
In a statement issued in a San Francisco Chronicle editorial and on Twitter, Lopez described school renaming as one of many “distracting public debates” that have occurred as the board works to reopen schools, which have been shut down since last March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I acknowledge and take responsibility that mistakes were made in the renaming process,” Lopez said.
She said the renaming committee will not meet and “reopening will be our only focus until our children and young people are back in schools.” Plans for renaming will be revised to be “more deliberative” going forward, and will engage historians from nearby universities to help. A frequent criticism of the renaming committee’s efforts has been the lack of historians in the group or any attempt to seek their input.
“We recognize we need to slow down. And we need to provide more opportunities for community input. We are working with educators at all levels to involve and educate our school communities about the renaming process,” Lopez said. “We are realizing, especially now, it will take time and energy to get that right.”
The school board has faced rising anger among parents and some elected officials over the slow progress toward reopening, as well as over decisions such as a recent move to drop Lowell High School’s selective admissions process.
The school district earlier this month announced a deal with unions on health and safety standards around a return to the classroom that includes the provision that teachers will not resume in-person work until The City reaches the red COVID-19 risk tier, if vaccines are made available to staff. That deal is expected to go before the board for a vote on Tuesday after a one-week postponement.
That deal, while hailed as a sign of progress, has also been greeted with criticism from parents and city officials including Mayor London Breed who believe in-person classes could resume safely now with safety precautions in place.
Chief among those critics, City Attorney Dennis Herrera has filed a lawsuit against the district seeking to force it to spell out a clear plan for returning to the classroom. On Thursday, he sent a letter to the district indicating he would challenge reopening plans if they are contingent on vaccine availability, citing federal and state guidance.
“Be advised that any school reopening plan that fails to offer in-person learning ‘to the greatest extent possible’ would be unlawful,” Herrera wrote. “When, to what extent, and under what conditions in-person instruction is ‘possible’ during a pandemic is a health and safety decision that rests with public health officials, not with individual school districts or their workforce.”
SFUSD and United Educators of San Francisco on Friday reached agreements around special education students, which the school board will vote to approve on Tuesday. It allows for in-person testing and hearing and vision screening when in the red tier regardless of vaccine availability. It would assign educators for such testing, as well as security aides, based on seniority if not enough volunteer to meet demand.
“We have every intention of ratifying the agreement next week,” Lopez said on Wednesday. “Our main push is for vaccines for educators, which they named and asked for, and getting into a safer tier. If the city of San Francisco can’t do it…then we need to advocate up. If we can come together as a community to make that happen, we’ll get close to reopening schools.”
The district and UESF were still negotiating as of Saturday, the fifth day of extensive bargaining in a row, on instructional hours and attendance schedules.
Those talks are complicated by factors including the need to balance in-person learning with continued distance learning, for those who choose it, and the need for social distancing among students. SFUSD officials have said that they only have space on campus for around 15,000 students out of the more than 50,000 currently attending city schools.
If there’s enough space, students could be in class five days a week for a full day of instruction under district plans. But should demand for in-person learning be high, SFUSD has proposed two days a week of full instruction, while UESF said it has proposed four half-days a week to provide more continuity for parents, students and teachers.
“SFUSD’s unwavering priority is to provide all students who wish to attend in-person instruction with as many days per week and as many hours per day of instruction as possible while also adhering to physical distancing requirements,” SFUSD tweeted on Saturday.
“We have done many, many hours of work on this to figure out how we provide education to students who will come back in-person and, at the same time, for students whose parents are choosing to keep them home for the rest of the school year,” Susan Solomon, UESF president, said on Saturday at a vigil outside City Hall. “There won’t be more educators doing the work.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday said the state would set aside 10 percent of the vaccine supply for educators. State legislators are expected to vote as early as Monday on a $6.6 billion school reopening plan, which Newsom criticized for not going far enough.