At least some secondary school students will have the option to return to in-person learning in April, school district officials announced on Monday. But most are still waiting for the district to set a date.
The San Francisco Unified School District announced Friday that it had reached agreement with unions to begin returning students to the classroom on April 12, starting with the very youngest students up to Grade 2 and progressing through Grade 5.
On Monday, district officials released further details of the reopening plans, which will see further waves of students including those in third through fifth grades returning on April 19 and April 26.
Sixth-through- twelfth-graders who ordinarily receive special education in separate classrooms will be prioritized for return to the classroom on April 26.
The district has also said it will prioritize students experiencing homelessness, currently living in foster care or public housing, or who have shown significant drop-off in digital engagement during the pandemic, for return to the classroom by April 26.
The district has previously said it can only accommodate up to about 15,000 students on campus given current social distancing requirements.
“We truly wish we could return to in-person learning for everyone,” SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews said during the press conference on Monday, adding distance learning would be provided as an option for everyone through the remainder of the school year that ends in June. “For those who have the option to return this spring, I want to let you know we will not reopen any schools until we can implement all health and safety measures required by the Department of Public Health and agreed upon with our labor unions.”
Still, there remains no immediate end to distance learning in sight for the majority of middle- and high-schoolers. The district has previously said it is unlikely they will return to the classroom this year.
It’s been nearly one year exactly since the school district shut down. Since then, dozens of private and parochial schools across San Francisco have reopened their doors for students to return to in-person learning, should they choose, while The City’s public school doors have remain shut.
Frustration with the slow pace of reopening has prompted parents to organize into groups including Decreasing the Distance, which has advocated for reopening with marches and public “zoom-ins” at various locations around The City.
The parent group said in a statement that it was happy with the progress but remained frustrated by the lack of clarity around schedules or clear plans to get all students back in the classroom.
“Our joy is tempered by the very real problem that the majority of SFUSD students have yet to see any plan for their long-overdue return to the classroom, or how SFUSD will be transitioning all children back to full, five-day in-person learning,” the group said in a statement. “We are a school district for all students, and the plans for reopening of public schools should be for all school children in the district.”
Group member Yvette Edwards noted that the district has still not offered any clarity around the fall schedule, a point that is causing anxiety for many parents as they weight their options for the coming school year.
“I’m feeling optimistic that we are seeing some movement, but… I think people need some reassurance,” Edwards said.
A total of 76 schools will begin allowing interested students to return on April 12, another 14 on April 19 and two on April 26, according to SFUSD officials.
The staggered reopening dates allow SFUSD to evaluate the capacity of various sites, provide the Department of Public Health adequate time to evaluate locations to ensure they’re complying with agreed upon health and safety protocols and give more time to educators to receive their vaccinations, officials said.
“This is an important step on our path to reopen schools and we continue to be committed to make sure every student in SFUSD is receiving the support they need in the method they choose,” said Gabriela Lopez, President of the San Francisco Board of Education.
SFUSD is currently working to determine interest in returning to in-person learning through a series of online surveys and parent-teacher conferences.
Enikia Ford Morthel, deputy superintendent of SFUSD instruction, said the level of interest so far has been “variable” based on the school.
While the goal is to have students return to the classroom five days a week for five-hour days with the same teacher, there will be some sites where demand for in-person learning exceeds the ability of the location to provide it five days per week. For these cases, SFUSD will use a hybrid model in which students will go to school twice a week and continue with virtual learning for the remaining three, again with the same teacher to allow for continuity and consistency.
On those distance learning days, each child will be guaranteed at least two hours of daily live instruction.
As of December, SFUSD estimated about a third of elementary schools would require a hybrid schedule based on demand, but Morthel said they’d have more firm estimates for the number of students expected to return in April and how they could accommodate them by the end of this week.
Of the families that indicated they planned to send their children back to in-person school in a survey in December, 29 percent said they would consider returning to a different location and 59 percent said they would consider switching teachers, if needed.
“We emphasize that we support whatever decision works best for your family at this time,” said Gentle Blythe, who oversees SFUSD communications.
City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who filed suit against the district in February to compel reopening, said his office would not rescind the lawsuit until “the district offers in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible.”
“We have not seen a written agreement. We are concerned that the school district’s statements do not provide all of the information for parents to know when their children will be offered in-person instruction,” spokesperson John Cote said in a statement. “Health experts at every level say schools can be open right now with basic safety precautions, like masks, physical distance and good ventilation.”
The Board of Education hopes to vote on the proposal on Thursday ahead of a scheduled closed session.