Tara Hobson, center, principal at SF International High School, welcomes a student back on Monday, April 26, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Tara Hobson, center, principal at SF International High School, welcomes a student back on Monday, April 26, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SFUSD seniors get a chance to say goodbye to school in person

Deal to briefly return older students to school leaves many parents and teens dissatisfied

San Francisco Unified School District is poised to welcome back more than 500 seniors to high school campuses before the end of the school year – briefly.

Starting Friday, students who return will likely have three days total on campus before the school year ends on June 2. The district and teachers union reached a deal last Friday and quickly finalized surveys on Monday.

“We’re really excited to have this opportunity for graduating seniors who are not part of the focal groups,” said Enikia Ford Morthel, deputy superintendent of instruction, at the school board meeting on Tuesday. “We’re really proud of the fact that we’ve been able to open even with the challenging circumstances and constraints we are working within.”

Of the 37 percent of students who responded to the survey as of Friday, 565 said they would return in person. Students at Lowell, Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, Lincoln and Washington high schools accounted for 74 percent of those who want to return.

Students will not be taught in person while at school but will have teachers to help with online learning and final projects or assignments, Ford Morthel said. High school students have multiple teachers throughout the day.

Student delegate Kathya Correa Almanza, a senior at June Jordan School for Equity said she jumped at the chance to return, but noted that a lot of students at her school didn’t want to go back to campus for one or two days.

“For me, this was pretty concerning,” Correa Almanza said. “I don’t want to go back for the walls, I want to go back for my classmates and just spend time together.”

The limited scale of the return to campus, for roughly just one day a week, rubbed many the wrong way in another aspect. Assemblymember Phil Ting, who represents San Francisco, said on Tuesday that the plans violate the “spirit” of Assembly Bill 86, which offers districts more aid as an incentive to reopen more grades.

SFUSD was previously expected to gain up to $18 million in grant funds under the bill for bringing back an additional grade by May 15, but the later the students return the less will be received. Technically speaking, “in-person instruction” under AB 86 means certificated employees provide physical supervision for youth engaged in required educational activities.

“Those funds are needed,” Gregory Arenius, a parent involved in a recall effort against several current school board members, said in public comment. “That being said, this plan is disgusting. What you’re offering is literally the least that could be done.”

United Educators of San Francisco announced over the weekend that the union and SFUSD had reached a tentative agreement around allowing seniors to return to campus, which was up for approval on Tuesday evening. At least 175 educators told UESF in a survey said they would staff the high schools.

“UESF brought the initial proposal to SFUSD so that our current graduating seniors would have the opportunity to spend some time in-person on campus with teachers and their peers during their last few weeks of high school as they say goodbye to classmates and prepare for graduation and the next chapter of their lives,” the union said in a statement over the weekend. “We are looking forward to seeing our students in person.”

The district most recently welcomed back about 1,600 middle and high school students who were foster youth, experiencing homelessness, live in public housing, newcomers, have disabilities or have attended distance learning less than 40 percent of the time. Attendance rates have been about 92 percent.

In-person reopening preparations around middle and high school focal students, like labor agreements and site approvals, helped set the stage for adding another grade.

SFUSD had remained largely mum on plans for older grades as it worked to reopen campuses for younger students and priority populations. Of the 140 educators approved for medical exemptions to teach in-person, 105 have been covered by UESF substitutes, district staff, or contract substitutes.

“The staff capacity component was our greatest concern as we have contemplated returning a single secondary grade for in-person learning,” said SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick. “Once we reopened to our focal student populations in middle and high schools, we were able to assess what was possible for reopening a full grade level.”

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