School reopening should prioritize those who need it most—not just the wealthiest kids in the city

By Matt Alexander

During the last week of September, students in grades K-2 at Convent and Stuart Hall School in San Francisco returned for in-person learning. They will soon be followed by boys at the Town School and girls at Burke’s. Over 100 private and charter schools have begun the application process with the Department of Public Health to reopen safely.

Meanwhile, the 15,000 pre-K to second graders in our public schools continue to struggle with remote learning, as they have since March, with no clear timeline for reopening. Many parents with young children — especially low-income families in crowded living situations and working parents — still battle to make it through the day, let alone facilitate meaningful learning experiences. A majority of families haven’t even been able to log on to SFUSD’s parent app.

All of us who care about democracy should be concerned that San Francisco’s wealthiest children are returning to school, while the rest are left behind.

Some of the responsibility lies with our school district’s lack of openness to innovation. Over the summer, a team of SFUSD educators developed a detailed plan for an outdoor school in McLaren Park that would have served our most vulnerable students — but district leadership didn’t allow it. Rooftop Elementary School families designed a socially equitable approach to “pods” — but the SFUSD central office told school staff they couldn’t even talk to parents about the idea.

Several days after Convent and Stuart Hall students returned to class, our Superintendent wrote in the Examiner that SFUSD priority students would return “once science and data suggest it is safe to do so.” But science and data had already established specific practices for safe openings — ones the Department of Public Health outlined, and the private schools are following.

The real challenge? It’s not the teachers’ union: our educators, many of them parents themselves, are eager to re-open with practices that will protect everyone. The basic problem is that public schools aren’t receiving the resources needed to educate kids safely. A safe reopening requires, at a minimum, small, stable cohorts of students (which means hiring more educators), good ventilation (which means renovating HVAC systems and/or purchasing purifiers), frequent handwashing (which means installing more sinks), daily health screenings (which means hiring more nurses), and regular COVID-19 testing (which means paying for more tests). A real solution means ongoing evaluation, recalibration, and adaption as the situation changes, in order to keep everyone safe.

The private schools reopening right now spend $35,000-$40,000 per student each year; SFUSD spends about $15,000. While youngsters in Pacific Heights are getting the in-person education they deserve, the story is different over in Ingleside. There, one of the most delightful and curious seven-year-olds I’ve ever met is struggling to learn anything at all because her mom speaks only Spanish, and her teacher only English. She misses school terribly. She’s one of thousands of kids — especially the youngest, students of color, kids with special needs, and homeless and foster youth — whose education and development are in free-fall because of our inaction.

As a public institution, SFUSD needs to address this citywide crisis. We need a plan, developed by thoughtful educators, parents and students, to ensure safe reopening now for the kids who need it most, and to guarantee continued support for quality education for everyone.

This plan will cost more than SFUSD can afford — and that’s where our responsibility as citizens comes in. If I were on the School Board, I’d be straightforward about our need and call on wealthy San Franciscans to step up and help pay the cost — both to serve the immediate needs of kids and as a way to start bridging the widening inequality that hurts our city. I know from talking with parents, neighbors, and business people that there’s an urgency about overcoming this crisis. Just tell us what the schools need, they say, and we’ll help buy it. Of course individual donations aren’t enough — any more than they were enough to solve the national failure around PPE supplies — but they make a concrete difference now, and show a common commitment to our city’s children. That solidarity can lead us, together, to insist on equitable tax policies that will fund our public schools appropriately.

Safe schools shouldn’t be just one more marketable commodity for those who can afford them. Public schools are at the heart of our democracy, and the foundation of our common life. In a time of national crisis, let’s act to show that San Francisco takes democracy seriously.

Matt Alexander has 20 years of experience as a teacher and principal in SFUSD and is a candidate for San Francisco Board of Education.

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