San Francisco public schools won’t reopen to students for the rest of 2020 due to issues including limited COVID-19 testing capacity, officials told the Board of Education on Tuesday.
“We do not anticipate bringing in students back before the end of the calendar year,” said Superintendent Vincent Matthews. “Our hope is that over the next eight weeks we’re going to have [testing] at 100 percent. We’re an educational system that’s been asked to be a testing agency.”
When asked if SFUSD could offer a specific date, Matthews noted that New York pushed back their reopening date three times and that SFUSD doesn’t want to reopen just to shut down. New York closed all schools in hotspot neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens days after reopening.
The superintendent shared a dashboard that monitors key indicators for reopening on Tuesday that told district officials they were far from ready. The dashboard shows the progress on each task needed to reopen; so far none of them are 100 percent completed.
Having a three-month supply of personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies is furthest along at abput 85 percent. General safety measures, like plans for repeated closures and surveillance testing of staff, are overall 30 percent complete.
Matthews has previously indicated that tests could cost as much as $300 per person tested. SFUSD has guidance from health officials but is seeking proposals for a testing plan on its own, he added Tuesday.
“SFDPH and SFUSD are closely collaborating on reopening schools as safely as possible,” a health department spokesperson told the Examiner last week. “In addition to official guidance on reopening schools safely, SFDPH has provided insight on the schools reopening application process. SFDPH is also finalizing operations for testing, case investigation, contact testing, and outbreak management specific to schools, including for SFUSD schools.”
SFUSD now plans to first bring back small cohorts of students with moderate to severe disabilities and those in pre-kindergarten.
The dashboard showed that SFUSD is overall about 60 percent of the way toward reopening. It is nearly done identifying sites for the groups but still needs to identify students and seats for its initial reopening plans.
A second phase would focus on students with limited online engagement, foster youth, and students facing homelessness.
If all schools would return in person and kept a distance, only 15,000 students could be on site at a time, Matthews said. SFUSD has at least 54,000 students enrolled.
The announcement comes as San Francisco became the first Bay Area county on Tuesday to move into the state’s least restrictive COVID-19 category based on factors like new cases per day and positivity rate. Officials have granted at least 56 waivers for private schools to operate in person, and as calls by some to reopen have grown more aggressive.
SFUSD also still needs to finalize a labor contract for hybrid learning with the United Educators of San Francisco. Union President Susan Solomon has said she hopes the deal won’t come together at the last minute after bargaining into the dead of night as happened with the agreement for fall distance learning, which was finalized days before the first day of class.
Solomon said that educators want to be in their classrooms but that they are carefully monitoring other reopenings. Ultimately, she said, it is a question of funding; private schools have a fraction of SFUSD’s student and staff population, as well as more funding.
“Underfunding in normal times is now exacerbated in crisis times,” Solomon said. “Ultimately, we know this is unbelievably hard for everyone. Some of this is just about anxiety, about just not knowing.”
Facilities also present a significant issue. Many SFUSD buildings don’t have proper ventilation and district officials said it could take six to 10 weeks to prepare them for students to return.
While holding classes outdoors has been urged, staff also noted that The City’s microclimates, frequent struggles with bad air quality from wildfire smoke, and upcoming winter weather make it a difficult setting to bet on.
The criticism came after a volunteer-run school renaming committee borne out of a 2018 resolution asked principals for input on possible alternative names for 44 sites or programs by Dec. 18. The request was not mandatory, and the Board of Education has not discussed school names during the pandemic.
Board President Mark Sanchez said the board agreed that “the biggest priority is ensuring the continued education of our students and the wellbeing of everyone in our community, including students, staff, and their families.”
“We also believe the timing for taking an anti-racist stance is as much now as ever, even in the midst of the pandemic,” Sanchez said in a statement. “But I want to assure you that reopening schools is in no way being held up by the community process the school renaming panel is engaged in.”