Now that the San Francisco Unified School District has finally set a date for students to return to classroom learning, one of the many questions to follow is — how will they get there?
Roughly 13,0000 SFUSD students used Muni as their primary transportation to school in the 2017-18 school year, according to data from The City’s transit agency. Yet, transportation has been notably absent from recent formal conversations around school reopenings.
Transit concerns have been brought up during public comment and in parent Facebook forums, or in brief comments from district officials, but the challenge of how to shuttle thousands of children to school with Muni service operating at no more than 70 percent of its pre-pandemic levels was never considered in labor union agreements in in the dozens of presentations to the public.
“Muni service would have to be increased,” SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews said in late February, regarding what it would take to bring more students back to school. “We continue to have conversations around this with the mayor’s team.”
Talk of schools specifically has, to date, also been conspicuously missing from San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency public hearings, save for a few one-off comments from officials that school access has played a prominent role in determining which Muni routes to bring back and at what frequency.
“We’ve been in lockstep with The City as we work toward recovery together,” SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato told the Examiner. “School reopenings, as well as any other example of city reopening, is all factored into our Transportation Recovery Plan.”
The transit agency published a blog post on Thursday that provides more insight into how it plans to support the return of young San Franciscans to in-person learning.
In short: SFMTA is proactively bulking up Muni service where it can, but against the backdrop of an ongoing budget crisis, it’s also encouraging students and their families to consider walking, biking or rolling to school, if possible.
“As part of this effort, SFMTA staff are available to assist schools in expanding access to transportation options and safe drop-off planning with our smallest San Francisco residents in mind,” it reads.
Behind the scenes, SFMTA increased frequency on Muni bus routes that serve high numbers of students such as the 29-Sunset and 44-O’Shaughnessy in both August 2020 and January 2021 in anticipation of two previously announced school reopening dates. Both ended up being false starts.
Come April, it plans to increase service on eight Muni lines known to experience crowding with students before the pandemic, but the exact lines have yet to be announced.
It will also restore the N-Judah and the T-Third to West Portal Muni Metro lines in May, which the agency believes will help address holes in transit service as well as increase both reliability and capacity.
SFMTA also plans to re-introduce its School Trippers program, which sets aside buses to exclusively serve middle- and high-schoolers citywide after school hours.
All that said, there’s a little wiggle room for SFUSD and SFMTA to determine how to align service with demand from students and their families, as the school district plans to bring back elementary school students, who tend to be less likely to take Muni than their older peers, ahead of secondary students.
SFMTA estimates roughly 8,000 of its student Muni riders in 2017-18 were high schoolers.
Financial woes aside, SFMTA will continue to provide free Muni to children between the ages of 5 and 17 based on their free or reduced lunch registration. Together, SFUSD and SFMTA recently identified 25,000 additional students who could be eligible for the Free Muni for Youth program.
Eligible students’ families will receive letters alerting them of the benefit, and directing them to sign up by mail or online.
It’s likely not every student who wants to take Muni to school this spring will be able to do so without delay, as pandemic social distancing guidelines have reduced vehicle capacity by about two-thirds.
As such, SFMTA encourages students and families to take advantage of the robust network of Slow Streets that has been created as part of The City’s COVID-19 response.
Though the Safe Routes to School initiative predates the pandemic, SFMTA says it is now easier than ever for families to walk or bike their children to school on safe, low-stress routes, and it plans to deploy staff to conduct trainings and delineate available resources to families throughout the SFUSD network in the coming weeks.
S.F. Examiner staff writer Ida Mojadad contributed reporting to this story.