Children walk alongside their parents in hopes that they can convince government officials to approve reopening their schools. Alongside marching around City Hall, the SF parent collective created an open letter to sign in support of reopening schools in the SFUSD. (Samantha Laurey/Special to SF Examiner)

Children walk alongside their parents in hopes that they can convince government officials to approve reopening their schools. Alongside marching around City Hall, the SF parent collective created an open letter to sign in support of reopening schools in the SFUSD. (Samantha Laurey/Special to SF Examiner)

What would a return to in-person classes look like? SFUSD officials are still trying to figure that out.

Social distancing requirements, capacity issues could mean students return to school part-time

While San Francisco Unified School District and labor unions have reached a tentative deal on safety standards, the details of what in-person learning will look like are still being hashed out.

Under the tentative memorandum of understanding reached on Sunday, staff would return when the county reaches the state’s red COVID risk tier if vaccines are available, or under the orange tier without access to vaccines. San Francisco is currently under the most restrictive purple tier.

Agreements around the details of in-person learning, however, are still being negotiated, much to the frustration of many parents.

A United Educators of San Francisco memo to members circulating among parents this week poses two possible scenarios, neither of them designed to please those eager to see kids back in the classroom.

In “Scenario A,” educators would keep the students currently on their roster and likely provide in-person instruction part of the day and distance learning the other part of the day. Two groups of students would be in class two days a week each.

“Scenario B” would have educators who prefer only in-person instruction as well as those who prefer only online teaching likely be reassigned students depending on how many attend in-person. Students would still attend school in-person two days a week.

Parents also noticed the memorandum of understanding is set to last through July 2022, opening the possibility of distance learning continuing into fall and beyond.

“It feels unreal that we are actually hearing that right now,” said Meredith Dodson, a leader of the parent advocacy group Decreasing the Distance. “Everyone’s incredibly upset, it’s an understatement. Parents are just not part of the equation.”

UESF President Susan Solomon said the district and unions settled on the July 2022 date as a contingency, so that if the pandemic spirals out of control later this year they can avoid another lengthy bargaining process that brings more uncertainty. The MOU bases in-person learning plans on levels of community spread and, she added, doesn’t change the need to reconcile smaller class sizes without more staffing.

SFUSD has estimated reopening costs could be up to $6.3 million for the first three phases without adding custodians or educators. Expanding to middle and high school would cost roughly $40 million, largely due to higher staff needs.

“We have spent hours and hours and hours working on this and trying to figure it out,” Solomon said. “We have to create scenarios without knowing how many will be coming back in person and how many will remain in distance learning. Class sizes are all larger than 14 students, that’s why you’re seeing two mornings a week. We’re still racking our brains to see if there’s a different way to do this.”

Class sizes were previously set to a maximum of 14 students under state and local guidance; that requirement was lifted as of late January, but distancing requirements remain.

Solomon said she was not informed of the change but noted that there is an agreement that smaller class sizes are safer. School Board President Gabriela Lopez said the district had been planning according to the 14-student limit and has found that with the distancing requirements, that is pretty much the maximum capacity either way.

“To help around learning days, we are absolutely aiming for five days a week,” said Lopez in a text. “The only part that would create less days is given the cohort size of 14 students. Depending on the number of students who do want to return, the hybrid model helps maximize how many more students can come back, because there is a capacity issue.”

Of about 80 percent of priority families surveyed, 57 percent have stated a preference to return to school in person.

District officials have said they have space for about 15,000 students daily with distancing in place. The district has also estimated it will need at least five weeks between the time when reopening conditions are met and when it can actually reopen.

Early education classes are typically around 14 students, and UESF and the district are in agreement that those students should be in class for a full day, Solomon said. Bargaining is scheduled for every day next week, she added. SFUSD noted in its reopening update on Tuesday that early education and those with disabilities would be in-person five days a week while others would be in-person at least two days a week.

SFUSD has prioritized its youngest learners and those with disabilities to return no sooner than late March, followed by homeless and foster youth, students living in public housing and those with limited online engagement. The district must still select a new testing provider after the last one, Curative, was flagged by federal officials for high-risk false negatives, and will close its requests for proposals on Feb. 22.

The district has been under increasing political pressure to reopen, from parents and from political leaders including Mayor London Breed, who has expressed support for a lawsuit filed by City Attorney Dennis Herrera against SFUSD seeking to compel the district to reopen.

Decreasing the Distance on Thursday called for the district to set up a timeline between approving the MOU and when students arrive, include an option to return five days a week, renegotiate any signed MOUs based on the science aimed at the 2022 sunset date, and include all students in reopening plans. SFUSD told families last week most middle and high school students were unlikely to return this school year.

“It’s time to set a date for in-person learning to return this year for full-time instruction and work together to make it happen,” Breed said in a Medium post on Thursday. “We’re ready to help and we’ll continue to do everything we can to offer support.”

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