Eduardo de la Cruz walks in with his son, kindergartener Erron Cudjo, for his first day of in-person learning at Bret Harte Elementary School on Monday, April 12, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Eduardo de la Cruz walks in with his son, kindergartener Erron Cudjo, for his first day of in-person learning at Bret Harte Elementary School on Monday, April 12, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Restoring faith in San Francisco’s public schools

By Decreasing the Distance

Last week SFUSD welcomed 6,056 of our youngest elementary students back to school. Children were greeted with parades of balloons, welcome signs, masked cheering from families and school staff, and tears of relief and happiness. Would their friends remember them? Was their teacher tall or short? What would their classroom look like? The big moment these children and their families had been waiting for for over a year was finally here.

Now only a week into partial school for our smallest learners, we already have clear, powerful takeaways.

The impact on mental health was immediate and positive.

“After over one year of learning from home, this one was BEYOND excited to head back to the classroom,” says Jessica Wallack-Cohen of her eight-year-old 2nd grader. Cohen later captured her daughter doing cartwheels on video after her first day. Parent Chanel Blackwell reported, “Our 4th grader woke up the crack of dawn and got himself ready. First in line behind his teacher heading to class. Tears in my eyes filming it all on camera from afar as he walked through those doors. Next will be his teen brother. [Let’s] continue to put pressure on BOE so he can go back safely in person, too! This mama bear got one cub down, one more to go!”

This is great news for the kids who are already experiencing health benefits. It also means there’s still time for all kids to have that experience, including middle and high schoolers, though time is ticking. For those who have questioned whether returning to school for only a few weeks is worth it, the answer is a resounding YES.

The message from SFUSD’s most recent surveys is clear: families overwhelmingly want to return right now–across race/ ethnicity, language pathway and economic status. For the youngest cohort that started returning last week, the majority of African American (~70%), Asian (~50%), Hispanic/ Latino (~70%) and White (~85%) families planned to attend in-person, a notable increase from last fall’s survey results. These numbers are especially remarkable given that the school district has reduced school hours and days for most students and refused to allow before and after care at school sites, thereby making the logistics of school more challenging than ever for working families.

The Board of Education has committed to fully reopening schools for all students, five days a week by the first day of School Year 2021-2022. However, as we celebrate the return of some children to their classrooms this week, we ask the Board and SFUSD staff, as well as our political representatives in Sacramento, to reflect on what needs to happen in the coming days, weeks and months to make good on that promise. We cannot emphasize enough the catastrophic erosion of trust in our school district and government that has swept through parent communities this past year. As a result, planning for next school year more than ever needs to be pro-active, clear and participatory for parents, students, teachers and staff.

Some of the key questions that need clear answers from our Board of Education, State Legislature and Governor in the coming weeks:

What is the definition of full-time school? Over the last year, there has been an alarming erosion of what constitutes full-time school in San Francisco and across the state. Families need clarity on whether our political leadership will be restoring instructional minutes to pre-pandemic levels, and whether the state legislature will ensure that Zoom in a Room can never be counted again as “in-person learning.”

Will continuing temporary Distance Learning for medically fragile and other students with extraordinary educational needs be provided by individual classroom teachers? Expecting classroom teachers to teach in-person and distance learners is unrealistic, and benefits no one. There has to be a better way—one that actually centers students and doesn’t ask teachers to be in two places at once.

How will SFUSD be embracing and redoubling its efforts to serve the students who have been hit hardest by school closures? This includes students with IEPs, who have gone without their federally-mandated in-person learning accommodations for over a year, as well as students who will be bringing back significant trauma.

What will school health guidelines look like for the next school year? For example, will before and after care finally be restored at school sites?

The last year has been a time of enormous challenges and enormous changes, and children, parents and teachers have felt this bittersweet weight keenly this past week as they returned to the classroom. There is so much joy, but also so much very real frustration and fear. So now, more than ever, public school families in San Francisco need steady hands and transparent, participatory processes that help us rebuild trust in a system that has so badly failed our children over the last year. Our schools may be reopening, but there is still so far to go to restore what our children have lost this past year.

Decreasing the Distance is a collective of 4,000+ parents, caregivers, and teachers of SFUSD students that advocates for equitable education solutions, including safely reopening our public schools

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