Supervisors urge school district to reopen

Board calls for plan to get students back in classrooms

Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously passed a resolution urging the reopening of San Francisco schools and asking district officials to outline what needs The City could provide.

The Board of Supervisors at a special meeting Tuesday called on the San Francisco Unified School District to have a comprehensive plan to bring students back with urgency, though they did not set a date. SFUSD originally planned to bring back priority students starting Jan. 25, but said last week it would not be able to meet the deadline.

The resolution brought forward by supervisors Sandra Lee Fewer and Hilary Ronen also urged the district to collaborate with educators, school staff and stakeholders to immediately outline financial and operational needs that The City or private assistance might provide.

“This does not set a deadline for when to reopen or how to reopen,” Fewer said. “That plan is up to the school district. All we’re asking for or urging them to do is to create a plan.”

School officials have been under increasing pressure to reopen schools, particularly from officials like Fewer, Ronen and Mayor London Breed. The resolution was hotly debated last week, when supervisors Gordon Mar and Dean Preston backed failed amendments to incorporate guidelines from the San Francisco Labor Council and increase support for families who choose to stick to distance learning.

SFUSD did outline a plan for reopening in early December that would bring roughly 14,000 students in second grade or younger or with disabilities back to the classroom between Jan. 25 and March 22. The Board of Education required staff to present the plan on elementary school students in December and middle- and high-school students in January.

“It’s kind of redundant given we have a plan,” said school board member Gabriela Lopez of the resolution. “What they really want to say is open now. Unfortunately, that’s not how things work.”

Superintendent Vincent Matthews said Friday that students would not begin to return on Jan. 25, citing the lack of labor agreements needed to stay on track. Oakland and Los Angeles public schools have also recently called off planned January return dates, citing the coronavirus surge.

While the coronavirus transmission rate has slowed since San Francisco and other Bay Area counties voluntarily enacted another shutdown, intensive care beds are running low as Christmas and New Year’s holidays approach. Thanksgiving travel and gatherings drove the current surge, health officials said.

“We all want schools to reopen but not at the risk of getting our workers sick,” said Rafael Picazo, of SEIU 1021, at the meeting. “[The plan] leaves out worker protections under Cal/OSHA.”

Several others at public comment told supervisors they were concerned about the impact of the delayed closure on young children struggling through distance learning as parents juggle work and at-home schooling.

But even once case rates are under control again and as more people get vaccinated, SFUSD has several logistical challenges to overcome to bring back the bulk of willing students.

The district only has capacity for about 15,000 daily seats when accounting for safety precautions including spacing. It may also need to hire more staff depending on how many students wish to return, which would contribute to reopening costs of up to $44.8 million. SFUSD is facing a $169.7 million deficit over the next two fiscal years.

District staff could bring back more students if they were placed in other schools with more space, but that is a change for which there doesn’t seem to be an appetite. Preliminary results from a SFUSD survey of families found that 58 percent plan to send their children back in person, but only 28 percent were flexible about the location, while 59 percent were flexible about the teacher.

As of last week, about 69 percent of families had responded to the survey, with higher response rates from white families and low response rates from Black families.

Of those who responded, 46 percent of economically disadvantaged families and 43 percent of English learners plan to return in person. About 58 percent of special education students plan to return.

Supervisors last week also adopted a resolution urging Gov. Gavin Newsom and state public health officials to prioritize public school educators for the first phase of vaccinations.

“Everyone in The City wants to see something happen,” said Board President Norman Yee. “Let’s get it done.”

imojadad@sfexaminer.com

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