By Gabriela López and Alison Collins
As leaders of the San Francisco Board of Education we are committed to get our children and young people safely back into our city’s schools.
As former city educators we learned that it’s a teacher’s job to stay calm, cool and collected when responding to any challenge. But the growing acrimony, finger-pointing and grandstanding taking over the debates about how we can return to school safely would put most schoolyard scuffles to shame.
Against this toxic backdrop, important information is being lost that the public school community, and all residents of San Francisco, need to hear.
Our planning began as early as last year once we ensured all students, including those who needed access to technology for crisis learning, were supported. We’ve been working every single day to get everything in place even as the nature of the deadly virus continues to shift on the ground.
We’re almost there. We have been planning for in-person learning for months, and our plans incorporated safety protocols long before guidance came from the city, state or federal government. This includes universal masking, hand and bathroom hygiene, a combination of ventilation, socially-distant spacing for students, isolation and quarantine practices, contact tracing and even surveillance testing. Which is an area that we have taken on ourselves as a school district, making us the largest COVID testing entity in the city.
Despite all of this, we are continually met with barriers that push us further away from our goals. In fact, we were due to meet this Tuesday to vote on part of the reopening plan, but now, we have to hold a closed session to discuss litigation filed by people who claim to have our students’ best interests at heart.
It is one thing to try to use children and young people as ammunition to bolster one’s political agenda. It is quite another to actually care about their education and wellbeing. We are more committed than ever to getting our students back into their classrooms. And to continue to offer supportive distance learning experiences for students and families who choose to remain learning virtually.
We are responsible for the safety of 53,000 students and over 9,000 staff who help our schools operate efficiently. Our planning has been cautious, because we know that many of our parents and our educators are scared and have legitimate concerns. We’re listening to all parents. Those who desperately want to see their children in the classroom and those want to ensure we are doing all we can to keep everyone as safe as possible.
Clear safety standards will ensure more families come back to school more quickly. Until this past Friday, states and counties have been left to figure things out on their own. Finally, the Center for Disease Control has issued national guidance in consultation with teachers’ unions. And still President Joe Biden said he can’t just “snap his fingers” and get young people back into the classroom. It’s going to take all of us. We remain committed to moving the process forward, and to unity. In San Francisco, we also respect and care about all of our students and educators.
And while we are working everyday to ensure our schools are physically safe, the work to ensure our schools’ are emotionally and culturally safe spaces does not stop. There are people who are focused on dividing us in order to undermine the important work of creating school environments that are free from hate. Folks are saying we must first prioritize school reopening before we can address racism. This is a false dichotomy. We can and must do both. Our children and young people deserve schools that are physically, emotionally and culturally safe.
From Chicago to New York and from Atlanta to San Francisco, school districts across the country are grappling with the challenges wrought by the pandemic. We are in communication with each other, and we are learning from each other. Together, we will overcome this challenge.
We are both used to being held to unrealistic standards as women of color. But let’s stop with the personal attacks and stoking hate, and instead talk about how to come together and safely continue working towards reopening our schools. To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. we would prefer everyone decide to stick with love. Because hate, on top of everything else, is simply too great a burden for San Francisco’s public schools to bear.
Gabriela López and Alison M. Collins are president and vice president of the San Francisco Board of Education.