During the pandemic, San Francisco’s teachers’ union found itself under an intense spotlight. Tempers flared as teachers, parents and administrators tried to negotiate education solutions during a public health crisis.
A contingent of parents demanded schools teach students in-person, which required labor agreements. While few agreed remote learning was superior to in-person classes, many parents advocated for an urgent return to campus citing public health guidelines. The union pushed back, citing teacher safety. Administrators were concerned about resources.
What was traditionally a private union negotiation process became a very public conversation. And from that crucible of conflict, a leader emerged.
Cassondra Curiel, a Visitacion Valley Middle School teacher for 11 years, previously had represented her school in other matters and joined the bargaining team at this critical time. The high-profile bargaining process, which deadlocked at one point, instilled broader aspirations in Curiel to usher progress so schools and their communities could recover from the pandemic and begin anew in August.
“We were kind of movers and shakers,” Curiel said. “It got me thinking about the position of being in a role as an officer, perhaps the president, being able to facilitate the kinds of changes and use our collective power. We need more, not less.”
So she ran. And she won.
Union members voted for Curiel, along with an “Organizing for Union Power” slate of newer officers focused on equitable funding and community coalitions, in an election that saw some of United Educator of San Francisco’s highest participation rates, albeit slightly more than a fifth of total membership voted.
Curiel on Thursday will replace Susan Solomon, leader of the San Francisco public school teachers’ union through victories and crises of all stripes since 2018.
Under her tenure, UESF has had successes in pushing for educator housing, which is under way, as well as ballot measures to increase school funding while fighting layoff notices amid a structural deficit. The latest crisis involved navigating the sudden shift to online learning during the pandemic and anger over students being away from classrooms.
“Unions are not or should never be about one person, of course,” said Solomon, a San Francisco native and longtime activist recently honored by the Board of Supervisors. “I felt it was important to provide opportunities to rank-and-file union members to get involved in community and leadership roles so the work of the union could carry on. I’m excited to see newer people stepping into the role of education leadership now as I am closing out time with UESF.”
UESF has several elected officer positions to represent a variety of educators like substitute teachers, paraeducators, security aides, early education, bilingual educators, and those who sit on the San Francisco Labor Council.
At the top of Curiel’s agenda is more staffing to employ counselors, social workers and therapists as students and staff return for a regular, full schedule for the first time since spring 2020. Stresses and traumas are sure to manifest, Solomon noted, and educators need additional experts to better support students.
Educators and school staff found themselves delivering food, devices, checking in with parents and caregivers to ensure the kids were all right, and worrying about the students who weren’t logging on for reasons beyond their control.
“Not every teacher can do this alone,” Curiel said. “For folks to suggest social-emotional learning can be broadly wrapped into every lesson, that’s not going to address students’ mental health or well-being at a truly deep level.”
Another major goal of the new UESF slate is to build on the Close the Gap Coalition, which includes groups like UESF and Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, aimed at ending education disparities in the San Francisco Unified School District.
Curiel will step into the role as the district finalizes a fall agreement with unions like UESF, which all support a full return to regular school with advised precautions in place.
As Curiel recently cleared out her classroom to make the shift to a full-time union organizing role, Solomon will stay involved in some capacity, showing her successor the ropes to get her ready to interact with levers of power on local, state and federal levels.
“I’m sad to leave the classroom, but I can’t do both at the same time,” Curiel said.“Ultimately, we have some very big visions and broad sweeping goals. Some folks, they didn’t realize the amount of inequity in our city but those of us at school sites, it was very clear to us what these inequities were.”