With less than two weeks to go, San Francisco parents face mounting uncertainty surrounding the beginning of the school year — the first in-person start for the district since the pandemic began.
Families and school administrators are contending with logistical hurdles surrounding childcare along with psychological fallout from the latest coronavirus surge. The highly contagious Delta variant has many wondering if schools will even return.
San Francisco Unified School District has no stated plans to reverse course. Public health officials and pediatricians have tried to assure parents that the risk to children, for both contracting the virus and becoming seriously ill, is much lower than for adults. They have maintained that with mitigation measures — like the masks that will be required indoors and proper ventilation — schools can operate safely.
“I absolutely don’t expect us to have to close schools for the fall,” said Superintendent Vincent Matthews, at a town hall about health safety in schools on Monday. “We will be back full time, five days a week. Just imagine December of 2019 but with everyone wearing masks.”
Online learning is allowed for just a limited number of students who are unable to receive the vaccine and who have a medical condition, recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that puts them at heightened risk for a severe case of coronavirus. High school students opting for online study would be assigned to the independent study program, where students may have a supervising teacher while doing work on their own.
Phyra McCandless, who works in public health, wants to ensure safety for her fourth-grader and others by knowing that all students and staff adhere to masking. That includes masking outdoors as much as possible.
“My concern with going back is there seem to be some families, I’ve heard, that are pushing for schools not to have masked kids all the time,” said McCandless, an incoming member of the Parent Advisory Council. “I want everyone to be together and feel like we’re mitigating the risks. It’s important that kids are getting their education, their social-emotional health and a lot of that is diminishing the fear and anxiety of what COVID has brought to our communities.”
Other uncertainties remain. Just days before the end of the spring semester, SFUSD announced class schedule changes to make the school bus system, under a new app-based contractor, more efficient and to save costs.
Some schools will see a minimal change while others may see more than an hour difference in when school begins, impacting arrangements for before and after school care, as well as transportation. While the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority plans to resume service for school lines and provide free fare for youth, Muni is still getting back on its feet.
Kamal Bawa, a pharmacist who lives in West Portal, isn’t particularly worried about sending her second-grader back to West Portal Elementary School in light of the Delta variant. She finds San Francisco’s high vaccination rates assuring. And she believes children will likely be eligible for inoculations in the coming months.
In-school coronavirus transmission has been scant with just seven cases logged since SFUSD reopened in April. On the flip side, the Brentwood Union School District in Contra Costa County, however, reported more than a dozen coronavirus cases after reopening last week.
What Bawa is worried about is how her son’s school schedule and her work obligations will mesh in the face of child care shortages. She said her employer has been gracious, and the flexibility provided by her work has helped her manage remote learning for her second-grader. But with in-person school resuming without after-school care solidified, she’s worried she won’t be able to leave work early to pick up and look after her child for an extended time and doesn’t have much information to go on.
“Honestly, I don’t know how I’m going to deal with it,” Bawa said. “I don’t know how many employers are going to be willing to give us much flexibility as we’ve had in the last year and change on an ongoing basis. With all the unknowns, right now I’m just trying to stay positive and optimistic that, hopefully, there will be some sort of [version of] what we knew before.”
Bawa is looking to the alternative of “pandemic pods” once again, working with fellow parents and community members to take care of one another’s children. Last year, parents were driven to “pod up” in the face of remote learning. This year, it’s due to a lack of child care.
Smaller child care providers have either ceased operations or significantly scaled them back in the faced of the pandemic, though it’s uncertain just how many. Other providers are facing steep challenges in hiring staff.
“[Community-based organizations] have the resources to hire staff but just don’t have staff to work the hours they need and don’t have as many staff that’s willing to work,” said Maria Su, executive director of the Department of Children, Youth, and Their Families. “That creates a backlog and fear from parents of ‘What do I do with my child as school ends?’ The pandemic has caused havoc at every single layer of the system.”
YMCA San Francisco typically has between 10,000-14,000 slots across three Bay Area counties. This year, they have just 6,000 available slots for by the time the school year begins. Marissa Cowan, vice president of child and youth development, expects that by October they will be back to full capacity and hopes that parents can hang on a little longer than usual.
“Staffing can be a barrier in the past but definitely nowhere as significant as we’re experiencing this year,” Cowan said. “We’re not going to stop until everyone who needs after care has a space. I’m really hoping employers are being understanding of this crisis.”
Providers like the YMCA also went from operating city-run “hubs” to support kids in remote learning so parents could go to work, then pivoted to an expanded summer program and are now gearing up for fall offerings.
For the schools facing later start times, SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick said its usual after-school care programs will adjust to the times and it will be financially supporting organizations to provide before care at the select sites that need it. The cost was not disclosed.
Emily Garvie, an SFUSD parent, is on a waitlist for after-care at her children’s elementary schools. She hopes that the silver lining of these capacity shortages is increased pay for workers that would help bring improvements to the system of child care.
“We’re basically praying at this point,” said Garvie said. “Our options would be to find a babysitter or probably, one of us would have to reduce hours working. It’s sort of a continued splintering of inequities of the community of how folks are trying to get by.”