Everett Middle School along Church Street in the Mission District on Friday, June 7, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Everett Middle School along Church Street in the Mission District on Friday, June 7, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SFUSD middle school and high school students ‘unlikely’ to return to school this year

News comes as no surprise for many parents but district ‘took a long time to share it’

Most middle school and high school students will likely not return to physical classrooms for the remainder of the academic year, San Francisco school officials said Wednesday evening.

“As we think about any return to in-person learning, we have to think about the intersections between safety, students, staff and space,” San Francisco Unified School District said in an email to parents. “Also, the public health guidelines for middle and high in-person learning are different than for younger students. With the community spread of COVID and our current timeline for returning any students in Phase 2A, it is unlikely that we’ll be able to offer most middle and high school students the opportunity for in-person learning this school year.”

Grades 7-12 aren’t permitted for in-person learning until a county reaches the red tier. Under the purple tier, which San Francisco is in, grades K-6 are permitted by the state to have in-person classes unless cases are more than 25 new cases per day 100,000 people. San Francisco had 23.3 new cases per day per 100,000 people as of last week.

Meredith Dodson, a parent organizer with the group Decreasing the Distance, said the news wasn’t a surprise for families paying attention and watching school board meetings, but tough for those who still had hope things would come together. The district should have been more transparent about the reality sooner, she said.

“It’s been sort of a sad day witnessing a lot of families who were holding out hope for their middle school or high school students,” Dodson said. “For those of us who were plugged in, it was pretty obvious. I think that the leadership knew that, [but] they took a long time to share it.”

SFUSD previously sought to begin bringing back young students and those with disabilities, known as phase 2A, by Jan. 25, but called the return off amid a coronavirus surge from holiday gatherings when it could not reach a labor agreement with staff unions. Those deals have still not been finalized, but if readiness preparations go according to plan, the soonest those younger students could come back now would be March 25.

The school district is planning for phase 2A students to be in class five days a week. Phase 2b students — homeless and foster youth, students in public housing, and those with limited online engagement — will likely have a modified schedule depending on space and the number of students.

School officials have been under intense pressure to reopen immediately, with parents and city officials citing the toll distance learning is taking on students and families and support from health experts who say it can be done safely.

“We are committed to opening as soon as we can in a safe way,” said school board Vice President Alison Collins earlier this week. “It’s just definitely continuing to get more complicated. What’s been frustrating is we’re talking about our ability to implement those recommendations based on the current conditions.”

The Department of Public Health conducted site inspections this week, which is one of the final stages to receive local clearance to reopen. But there are several items left to check off, like finding a new testing provider after a previous partner, Curative, was deemed to post a high risk for false-negative results by federal health officials. State guidelines also now include surveillance testing of students if a county is in the red or purple tiers, which would greatly expand the district’s needs.

There are also multiple coronavirus variants, including one from California that is still being analyzed for how it fits into current guidelines and vaccinations. Gov. Gavin Newsom suddenly lifted regional stay-at-home orders on Monday and San Francisco officials subsequently lifted several restrictions, to the dismay of United Educators of San Francisco President Susan Solomon, who expressed concern that cases will rise again. Unions have proposed returning to school when The City reaches the orange tier.

As it’s become more clear that many students will spend the rest of the academic year relying on distance learning, Solomon said the district needed to provide them more support. Dodson said there needed to be more wellness checks and creative planning some in-person enrichment outdoors so pre-teens and teens could spend time together safely in some capacity.

“I think everyone has to recognize, from [Supervisor] Hillary Ronen to the superintendent to the state, that middle and high school students won’t be returning,” Solomon said earlier this week. “What are we going to do for them? Suicidal ideation is up, mental health crisis is up. That can’t just be the responsibility of educators. We can’t do this alone.”

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