After months of intense pressure from families concerned about learning loss and mental health impacts, San Francisco public schools are welcoming some students back in person starting April 12.
But not everyone wants to go back just yet. While those who want to return have been increasingly vocal in recent months, distance learning is working well enough for some San Francisco Unified School District families, while others still have health and logistical concerns about returning this spring.
As of late February, 57 percent of families that responded to an SFUSD survey — about 6,700 of 11,600 total eligible for the first round of returns — plan to send children back to the physical classroom. That leaves a significant number of families opting to remain in distance learning, though 19 percent of families have not yet responded to the survey sent out in December.
Preferences vary in part based on demographics, according to the survey. About 80 percent of white families, 62 percent of non-English learners, and 83 percent of students in Korean language pathways have indicated they would return in-person. On the flip side, 36 percent of Asian families, 41 percent of Filipino families, 19 percent of Cantonese bilingual program students and 48 percent of socio-economically disadvantaged families have opted out so far.
For Jose Victor Luna and Maria Anabella Ochoa, parents to a first-grader at Dolores Huerta Elementary School, their daughter’s health remains a top priority. Jazmin was born with several medical conditions, battled leukemia and has Down syndrome. Common colds make her very sick and she has trouble wearing a mask, they told the Examiner in Spanish through a translator.
“It’s really important for us to be able to keep her home,” Anabella Ochoa said. “Her health is very fragile. We have to do our part, but it’s also very beautiful because we’re able to learn more about how she learns and can be an active part of her learning.”
It’s also been a great bonding experience for the Tenderloin family, which also includes a third-grader at Tenderloin Community School. They have developed a new tradition of spending afternoons together in Golden Gate Park. Anabella Ochoa works part-time and Victor Luna is on disability assistance due to an injured arm.
“We aren’t able to have many things but we’re able to have the things we need,” Victor Luna said. “I’m not currently working but I’m able to dedicate all my time to supporting my daughter. It’s a sacrifice that’s worth it.”
They are not considering the right time for her to return until the outlook is more certain. The parents expressed deep gratitude for her teacher, who has delivered materials to them and been very attentive.
Health is also a top priority for Marlena Cohen, mother to a fifth-grader at Dolores Huerta. Cohen has her daughter Rikkie-Nicole Jones on a disciplined schedule to wake up the same time she would for physical school and get dressed, with a no-pajamas policy. Though she misses her friends, Cohen said Jones has continued to excel in school and even done better on some tests.
“This whole pandemic has shown me she has a mature side I didn’t know about,” said Cohen, who works from home with grandparents to help in Portola. “I see that she’s doing really well and we’re spending more time with each other. At the beginning, it was very hard.”
But Cohen has serious concerns about classroom safety at SFUSD going back into the fall and is applying to private schools, which have shown they can operate safely since October.
“I’m just really nervous about it,” Cohen said. “I don’t know if the schools are ready for that. Maybe once I see something in writing, the principal holds a town hall via Zoom and I see how it’s going to work, then I might ease up a little.”
A feeling that he is out of the loop and lacking clarity also makes Eduardo Abarca reluctant to send his nephew, an English language learner in kindergarten, back to Cesar Chavez Elementary School this spring. But distance learning isn’t working well for his family and they are worried about the boy’s language development, socialization and lack of structure.
“It’s been a very challenging time being indoors and confined,” Abarca said. “Our hesitation [to return in spring] isn’t so much COVID, at least for our family, it’s the chaoticness that will happen in the school and not knowing how to do those things. We would like to see a concentration on outdoor education, a concentration on smaller class sizes, and concentration on making sure there is more parental education.”
Abarca admits he and his brother, who co-parent, haven’t filled out the survey and have been a little disengaged from district communications, but says they still have felt inundated with information. Having lost a family member to coronavirus, they know the stakes of the pandemic, but have had to continue working and are generally concerned about mental health consequences.
Diana Hadeed, 70, is vaccinated but remains uncomfortable with sending any of her five grandchildren back in-person with variants looming in the picture — at least not until teachers are vaccinated. School staff became eligible earlier this month and The City has released vaccination codes to SFUSD this week to help prioritize appointments.
“I’m not in a hurry to send anybody to school,” Hadeed said. “I’m not going to risk myself. What are they going to do in half a day?”
The grandchildren, whose mother has disabilities, range in age from 7 to 17 and have excelled academically, as they did before the pandemic. Hadeed said her five grandchildren help each other with homework and she helps every so often, usually with the youngest in first grade, but that it doesn’t bother her at all. One of the high school students doesn’t want to return in-person at all, she said.
Superintendent Vincent Matthews acknowledged that distance learning has worked better for some students and indicated the district would explore ways to incorporate those lessons.
“We are learning a lot about the ways students are learning, especially online,” Matthews said on Tuesday. “This is causing us to reflect and think about the ways we’ll have education moving forward.”