San Francisco Unified School District is in crisis. Despite recent assertions by commissioners Gabriela López and Alison Collins that safe reopening is a priority, the Board of Education and the District have not fulfilled their responsibility to care for their more than 50,000 students, which include the youngest and most vulnerable residents of our city.
Planning for safe reopening did not start smoothly last summer when the Board of Education declined the assistance of a consultant with education expertise, in part because that consultant also had charter school clients. The board insisted that they would do the work themselves, and yet today marks 340 days without in-person instruction, and we still have no set date for reopening and no labor agreement in place.
At the same time, across the country, large urban school districts are returning children, teachers and staff safely back to classrooms. Commissioners López and Collins point out that districts in Chicago, New York City and Atlanta are all grappling with the same challenges as San Francisco. Yet each of these districts found a way to reopen safely despite having much higher COVID case counts than San Francisco. New York City and Atlanta are even bringing back middle school students. We would happily accept ANY of their models.
In contrast, SFUSD and its unions only recently tentatively agreed to a broad health and safety framework. There is still no target return date, and no agreement on which grades will return this year or for how many days a week. The health and safety agreement for reopening is so broad and contingent on events so far out (orange tier or all teachers being vaccinated), our greatest concern is that children may not return this semester. Instead of No Child Left Behind, it’s Every Child Left At Home.
The overwhelming scientific consensus is that with the right safety precautions, in-school transmission is low. In July, the San Francisco Department of Public Health released guidance for the safe return to in-person learning with input from SFUSD, the Archdiocese of San Francisco, and the Independent Schools Association. While our Board of Education and United Educators of San Francisco leaders continue to push back on the health department, there have been fewer than five cases of in-school transmission among the 15,000 San Francisco private school students who have returned, and no outbreaks in The City’s 80 Learning Hubs serving another 2,000 students.
The board has also shown little sympathy for or acknowledgment of families’ suffering, much less the learning loss. Commissioner Collins has publicly commented, “School closures aren’t causing growing opportunity gaps or mental health issues.” Commissioner López said children “are learning more about their families and their cultures, spending more time with each other.” Commissioner Matt Alexander has called public school parents advocating for a safe reopening plan “people who seem to care more about scoring political points than about our kids.” School reopening has been discussed more than seven hours into board meetings, most recently behind a two-hour discussion about whether a gay SFUSD father brings enough diversity to volunteer for a parent advisory group that includes no men and no representatives from the LGBTQ community. These are not the words and actions of people whose “priority has always been safely reopening San Francisco’s schools.”
Commissioners López and Collins argue it’s important to both reopen schools and address systemic racism in our schools. Yes, absolutely. School closures disproportionately affect students of color in terms of learning loss and access to social services. And 62% of Black and Latino families surveyed by SFUSD have said that they want to return to school. To deny these families the opportunity to return to schools is failing them. To deny that access while claiming it causes no harm is cruel.
The commissioners say that “we’re almost there.” We hope so. We remain firm calling on our school board, along with our union leaders, to develop a concrete plan that returns a significant number of children to school this semester. Assure parents now that schools will be open for PreK-12 students next year for more than two days a week. Bring the passion to reopening that they bring to other issues. Truly make safe reopening a priority.
Waiting any longer is too great a burden for San Francisco’s families to bear.
Seth Brenzel, Dheyanira Calahorrano, Meredith Willa Dodson, Yvette Edwards and Lorin Yin are members of the parent advocacy group Decreasing the Distance.