By Susan Solomon
San Francisco had been doing a great job ramping up its pace of vaccinations, opening mass sites, and improving communications around appointments. Everything was going great…until suddenly we ran out of vaccines and the city was forced this week to close or limit its vaccination program.
This disappointing turn of events is a sharp reminder of how the pandemic has torn to shreds so many well-laid plans. And it should quiet those who are exploiting pandemic frustration to score political points at the expense of teachers, other educators, and school staff. It’s time to work together to get more vaccines to San Francisco and get educators vaccinated so we can go back to the classrooms.
Progress is being made. Last week, every San Francisco Unified School District union — 17 collective bargaining units in all — established a groundbreaking agreement with the School District that creates a clear pathway for returning to in-person instruction, beginning with those students in the earliest grades.
A benchmark of that agreement is a safety standard that will allow teachers, other educators, and staff to return to campus while the city is in the red tier if they are all vaccinated. We are currently in the purple tier. We strongly believe that the vaccination requirement while in the red tier is the best way to keep students, their families, and all staff who work at schools safe, healthy and able to educate without further disruptions.
We have reached out to the Mayor and pledged our good faith efforts to work with her and the Department of Public Health. We have a meeting scheduled for Wednesday to discuss how we can move forward together, and leave the last weeks of divisive politics behind us. In our view, political bickering only makes the process take longer, and there is much work to be done before we can return to the classrooms.
Just recently, it was announced that educators and school staff would be placed into vaccination Phase 1B, which is scheduled to begin on February 24th. This is a major advance but in order to create an actual timetable for resuming in-person instruction, we need a more concrete plan from the administration. It should begin with identifying all the teachers and school staff who would be returning to school in the first phase, focused on TK-2nd grade plus other priority students. Then we must identify the specific sites and dates where these individuals can sign up for their first shot.
We are hopeful that with adequate vaccine supply and smart management, teacher vaccinations will not impede any other critical emergency and essential workers from getting the vaccines they need to be safe. This is not about making teachers first, but it is about getting a firm commitment and dateline for when teachers will be vaccinated, so planning to return to the classrooms can be on a specific timetable that parents and the community can rely on.
It should be remembered that this is not just about teacher and staff safety. Vaccinations are the single best way to ensure that the entire school community stays safe — including students and their families, and those they come in contact with. The December parent survey conducted by the School District showed significant reluctance on the part of many families to return to school, presumably because of safety concerns.
And with new variants mutating that are both more easily transmitted and potentially more lethal, vaccination is the surest and most reliable way to keep the entire community safe.
Since the pandemic hit, teachers have had to learn overnight a whole new way of education, what you could call crisis distance learning. Many teachers have gone into the community, helping families without adequate computer resources to get online, working to combat food insecurity, and addressing individual student issues that make learning more difficult.
We are now working with the District to iron out the schedule that will work best for students and their families to return to school.
We are asking the community and our local political leaders to work with us, not against us. This virus doesn’t care about politics. It doesn’t take sides. But if we don’t work together, if we continue to be divided, only the virus will win.
Susan Solomon is president of United Educators of San Francisco.