San Francisco supervisors are adding their voices to the growing pressure on city school officials to reopen to students in person.
At a sometimes-heated joint meeting with school board members Friday, several supervisors demanded the San Francisco Unified School District set a timeline to reopen, and offered city support for doing so.
The grilling came after Superintendent Vincent Matthews told school board members on Tuesday that SFUSD was unlikely to be able to bring students back to campus in 2020, and one week after Mayor London Breed blasted school officials for not focusing on reopening.
”Not to have a plan is just ridiculous at this point,” said Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, a former school board member, who raised her voice during her comments. “We’re saying we’re willing to help. If you don’t give us the plan, we don’t know what you need.”
Supervisor Hillary Ronen, a SFUSD parent, also had sharp words for school officials while Supervisor Matt Haney, who also previously served on the Board of Education, agreed that a timeline and testing assistance were needed.
“It’s very difficult and nobody denies that, but we can solve these problems if we put our resources and our energy and our heads together,” said Ronen, who also raised her voice at times. “What we’re looking for…is a can-do attitude. We’ve gotten very little specifics.”
School officials have cited the logistics and cost of the health measures needed to reopen as a reason for the slow progress toward reopening.
SFUSD launched a dashboard on Tuesday to let the public track progress toward reopening to pre-kindergarten students and students with moderate and severe disabilities, the groups the district has said it plans to prioritize. None of the necessary tasks on the dashboard are 100 percent complete.
Matthews told the school board Tuesday that mandatory testing was the biggest hurdle. It could come at a price tag of $300 per person per test and while health officials are providing guidance, the district is largely tasked with setting up testing on its own, he said.
Committee members on Friday were presented with an instructional video showing educators how to conduct tests themselves, which Ronen sought to have San Francisco educators consider.
Susan Solomon, president of United Educators of San Francisco, said teachers are conditionally on board with pursuing a similar model but that they must first know details, such as the risk of potential contamination.
“I do want us to have plans in place,” said Solomon. “But a timeline is partially based on what the pandemic is doing and what the number of COVID cases are.”
School Board member Alison Collins also noted that SFUSD simply doesn’t have the space to bring all students back and keep them six feet apart. The district has estimated about 12,000-15,000 students would be able to fit, without accounting for buildings that don’t have proper ventilation.
“It still leaves about 20,000-30,000 kids who are still going to have to do distance learning, and they still have needs,” Collins said. “We’re inventing new systems on the fly. It’s a planning capacity and ability to think about modeling programs at the scale.”
Ronen and Fewer repeatedly questioned the lack of urgency on SFUSD’s part to reopen. Ronen also blasted Board member Jenny Lam, who serves as Mayor London Breed’s education advisor, but has been absent from joint select meetings, and demanded that she show up at the next meeting.
“We have clear marching orders to make progress as quickly as possible,” said Myong Leigh, SFUSD’s deputy superintendent of policy and operations. “[Testing] is a front-burner question for us, we are learning quickly about it. I think that will be an appropriate area of focus for the next meeting or two.”
School officials and supervisors will meet once again in two weeks at 10 a.m.