The desks are separated, the sanitizer stations are supplied, and the windows are open.
All that’s needed now for in-person schooling to resume for the first time in more than a year are students. The first group of San Francisco Unified School District students to return will step foot in their classrooms on Monday.
More than 30 school sites will open to welcome prekindergarten to second-grade students, followed by additional sites and groups of third to fifth graders and students with moderate to severe disabilities the following week.
On April 26, the remaining elementary schools will open, while middle and high school students with disabilities or in certain focal populations will return in person. By then, about 22,000 students will have returned to the physical classroom in some capacity at 107 schools.
“We’ve been waiting for this day for quite some time,” Superintendent Vincent Matthews said at Bryant Elementary School on Friday. “It will feel different from before the pandemic for many reasons, including health and safety protocols that are in place, but schools are still places for connection and for interaction.”
After a year of distance learning, the change will be a big one for students, especially the youngest who have never been in a normal classroom before.
Liz Cong’s 5-year-old kindergartner will step foot in Dianne Feinstein Elementary School for the first time on April 19. Her son has expressed hatred for school in recent weeks, and considers his afterschool program to be his kindergarten class.
“I think he’ll get it when he’s there, but it’s hard for him to conceptualize,” said Cong, a nurse. “There’s going to be a lot of big feelings.
Through distance learning at home, Cong said there’s been a lot of frustration, yelling, and lost development for her son, who is on the autism spectrum. He will be enrolled in an extended school year, adding another month.
“We’re closer in many ways,” Cong said but added, “He’s beginning to show a lot of anxiety. This is time we feel like we’re never going to get back, I don’t know how he’ll be impacted for a long time.”
Kindergarten teacher Chris Johnson is excited to return to the classroom and meet this year’s students in person for the first time. Though it may feel a bit like the first day of kindergarten, he doesn’t anticipate the same type of nerves since everyone is used to one another by now.
Like other educators, the Bryant Elementary School teacher has a few students who will remain in distance learning that he will be giving attention before students arrive in-person and in the afternoon after they leave campus.
Johnson expressed confidence that with desks separated, individualized items not for sharing, food consumed in the classroom and careful attention to the 20-second rule of handwashing, among other precautions, it’ll be a safe learning environment.
“Families know this is a year of change and adjustment,” Johnson said. “We’re ready to reopen and to do it safely. We’re ready to have kindergarten but in a new way.”
Once screened for symptoms, students will be in class for about five hours a day. Depending on demand, some students will have in-person learning two days a week with split cohorts, while others will attend five days a week. It’s unclear how many classes have the split schedule arrangement, but third to fifth-grade classrooms are experiencing higher demand.
SFUSD has approved at least 280 educators for a medical exemption but has 170 substitutes ready to jump in. The district is continuing to hire additional substitute teachers as well as tap them through a contract service. The full-time educators will still run their classes and may join remotely with the substitute teachers in the physical classroom at times.
Central office staff may also temporarily fill in if needed. In the worst case scenario, a class without a substitute lined up by 4 p.m. the day before school would be canceled for in-person learning, said spokesperson Gentle Blythe.
The district recommends families preparing to send students back to have them wear layers to help them remain comfortable in classrooms where windows will be open for ventilation, as well as have them bring their district-issued Chromebook, fully charged. Other devices will not be allowed.
“It has been a complex and monumental effort, but I’m really proud of the staff for all that they’ve done,” Matthews said.