The United Educators of San Francisco rallied in front of City Hall Saturday for a candlelight vigil after several days of contract negotiations. (Samantha Laurey/Special to SF Examiner)

The United Educators of San Francisco rallied in front of City Hall Saturday for a candlelight vigil after several days of contract negotiations. (Samantha Laurey/Special to SF Examiner)

Teachers call for outside mediator as contract talks over school schedule continue

Union remains at odds with SFUSD over hours students should be in the classroom

San Francisco’s teachers’ union on Tuesday called for a mediator to intervene in contract negotiations to help reach an agreement around in-person instruction.

The call from United Educators of San Francisco came as the union and San Francisco Unified School District reentered bargaining on Tuesday after pausing a five-day session that lasted until Saturday. UESF also urged coming to an agreement quickly so preparations may be made.

“At this point, we believe there needs to be a trusted mediator to intervene, as we have lost confidence in the Superintendent to manage this process,” UESF President Susan Solomon said in a statement. “We strongly believe that the most equitable and workable schedule is to keep students together with the teachers who have taught them this entire year, and to bring students to school at least four days a week, even if they are half days and that families who choose not to return won’t be left out.”

SFUSD did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Earlier on Tuesday, Superintendent Vincent Matthews outlined the district’s proposal, which would have some students in-person five days a week for a full day, about 25 hours a week, and others two full days a week for 16 hours a week should demand be too high to accommodate everyone at once.

UESF is proposing four days a week in-person for half days and one day online for about 14 hours a week.

The district estimates it has enough space for about 15,000 daily seats, or 14 per classroom, with social distancing taken into account. About 25 schools would need to accommodate a hybrid schedule, leaving the remaining 50 elementary schools with enough space for five days a week, staff said at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

Outdoor learning is also under consideration to expand capacity but some schools are deeper into the process than others, said Deputy Superintendent of Instruction Enikia Ford Morthel.

“We are committed to reopening as many schools as possible for in-person instruction,” Matthews said. “Our goal has been and continues to be to maximize daily in-person instruction for students and maintain as much consistency as possible by welcoming students back to the school in which they’re enrolled.”

SFUSD hopes to begin bringing back students in late March starting with 12 pre-kindergarten and elementary schools, but estimates it will need five weeks once certain indicators are met — namely level of community spread, vaccinations, and testing capacity — to reopen the schools.

The district and union on Friday reached an agreement around special education students, which the school board approved on Tuesday. It allows for in-person testing and hearing and vision screening when The City is in the red tier regardless of vaccine availability. It would assign educators for such testing, as well as security aides, based on seniority if not enough volunteer to meet demand.

District staff announced at Tuesday’s meeting that there will be an assessment center at John O’Connell High School to evaluate special education students, staffed on a volunteer basis.

Several educators spoke at public comment on Tuesday against SFUSD’s proposal to have students in class fewer days or to switch schedules on students, with some concerned about quality for those whose families decide to keep them at home.

“There’s really no consideration for schools like mine,” said Rebecca Fedorko, a teacher on the UESF bargaining team at Sutro Elementary School with bilingual Cantonese speakers. “I find that my educational input on the bargaining team is constantly disrespected and I’m not impressed with their attitude.”

A handful of parents also urged the district to commit to more than two days a week and to be in-person for a full day.

“Two hours a day [for] two days for my child after one year of no school…it’s not enough,” said a parent who identified herself as Melanie. “Children need five days.”

The school board on Tuesday also unanimously approved health and safety agreements reached with all unions earlier this month. The board was expected to vote on that agreement last week, but Board President Gabriela Lopez said at a press conference on Wednesday that negotiations with the teacher’s union were ongoing. She added that district staff has already begun working to implement the MOU, despite the delayed vote.

“We have every intention of ratifying the agreement next week,” Lopez said on Wednesday. “Our main push is for vaccines for educators, which they named and asked for, and getting into a safer tier. If the city of San Francisco can’t do it…then we need to advocate up. If we can come together as a community to make that happen, we’ll get close to reopening schools.”

Under the agreement, staff would return when San Francisco reaches the state’s red COVID tier if vaccinations are made available, or under the orange tier regardless of vaccine accessibility. Though cases are on the decline, San Francisco is currently still in the purple tier, the state’s most restrictive designation. Mayor London Breed said on Tuesday that that could change by next week.

City Attorney Dennis Hererra earlier this month filed suit against SFUSD to compel reopening; a hearing in the case is scheduled for March 22. On Thursday, he sent a letter to the district indicating he would challenge reopening plans if they are contingent on vaccine availability, citing federal and state guidance.

“Be advised that any school reopening plan that fails to offer in-person learning ‘to the greatest extent possible’ would be unlawful,” Herrera wrote. “When, to what extent, and under what conditions in-person instruction is ‘possible’ during a pandemic is a health and safety decision that rests with public health officials, not with individual school districts or their workforce.”

California will reserve 10 percent of its vaccine supply for school and day care staff starting March 1, Gov. Gavin Newsom said last week.

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