By Michelle Parker
The uncertainties of the upcoming school year are keeping me up at night. I know I’m not alone. For parents, so much about this Fall is uncertain. Some are worried their high schooler will lose momentum as they move towards graduation. Others are worried their rising third grader won’t become a confident reader in a distance-learning environment. But one thing is for sure: this will be the most challenging and inequitable back-to-school experience our K-12 school communities have ever experienced.
Stating the obvious: safely opening schools this fall is a monumental challenge. It requires intensive problem-solving, deep collaboration, and humility by everyone involved. In such times, we rightly expect elected leaders to focus on improving the situation of those they were elected to serve.
Sadly, the San Francisco Board of Education has failed this leadership test. Instead of initiating and contributing to that effort, the Board obstructed efforts by staff to provide timely solutions. They have put petty politics before responsible leadership. They have failed to provide clarity for students and parents as well as responsible strategic oversight of the district. The result? Chaos and confusion abound for students, parents, and educators.
One egregious example of this is the Board’s June 9th vote to summarily reject Superintendent Matthews’s proposal to hire expert assistance to deliver a timely plan for fall learning. Instead of guiding the hiring process as it occurred, the Board said nothing—waiting until the last minute to deny the Superintendent much-needed resources with a politicized 4-2 vote. Only Board President Mark Sanchez and Commissioner Rachel Norton voted to center students’ needs and provide the Superintendent the (privately funded) tools he asked for to do his job. A mad scramble ensued among already overworked staff to develop a coherent plan for the fall.
Because of the delay and the general lack of clarity and direction, parents and caregivers are understandably rushing to cobble together any available option to support their children next year. Parents are in survival mode, facing impossible pressures to balance work and child-rearing. Stories abound about families with resources self-organizing into learning pods or coordinating childcare cohorts because they don’t have the capacity to manage a job and at-home learning at the same time. These ad hoc measures should alarm anyone committed to racial equity—as the Board repeatedly says it is. The children at most risk to be left out of parent-organized and self-funded groups are those already experiencing the opportunity gap, which appears to be rapidly widening during this pandemic.
SFUSD must lead the way to help all families organize in equitable ways through their school sites and with city agencies so that each and every child’s needs can be met. Caregivers need a schedule, families are asking for resources, and we need some insight for what instruction will look like. And that’s on top of the essential services our most vulnerable families rely on: meals, technology, internet access, social services, mental health supports. Without these basic things just two weeks before school begins, we will continue to see families lose trust in our public schools.
The SFUSD Board of Education is rapidly burning up any goodwill it had with parents and staff. We may find the patience and understanding our families graciously extended during the dramatic spring term run out when summer ends.
The Board cannot afford to be distracted by petty politics or anything else that harms our students, families and educators. I urge Board members to focus and work with staff to accomplish the monumental tasks in front of us. We all should expect—and our children deserve—no less.
Michelle Parker is a SFUSD parent leader, advocate, and candidate for San Francisco Board of Education.