We Need to Safely Reopen Public Schools
I would not be Mayor today if it weren’t for San Francisco’s public schools. I grew up in public housing that was literally deteriorating — it was common for the heat not to work or to go days without hot water. My neighborhood was the living embodiment of our government’s disinvestment in low-income neighborhoods and our residents. But I had a community that cared for me, and while I wasn’t always an easy student for my teachers, they saw potential in me and provided the support I needed.
This last year has been a challenge unlike any we’ve faced before and has upended almost everything. Throughout it all, our educators have been going above and beyond to try to teach over video conference. But there is only so much you can do when you’re facing a screen of black windows because students aren’t turning on their cameras. We often talk about how hard it is for students and parents, but this is also an unbelievable challenge for our teachers. I’ve heard directly from so many who are tired, frustrated, and just want to get back to working with kids directly.
So I do want teachers to understand — I know the last months have been challenging, and you have my support. And I firmly believe I would not be where I am today without the support of teachers and school staff like yourselves. But I also want you to understand that the reason I’m pushing to get our schools open for in-person instruction is because it’s so important for our kids. Especially those who are growing up in circumstances like I did. Students who are falling further and further behind every day. I would not push for this if our public health experts did not make it clear that it is safe to return to the classroom for in-person learning.
- Almost 1,000 SFUSD students have missed over 60% of their classes.
- Seventy percent of those students are from low-income families, and three quarters of them are Black or Latino.
- The achievement gap, which was already too wide, has continued to expand with Black, Latino, and Asian students losing ground in academic achievement.
- Health experts are reporting an alarming rise in students experiencing mental health issues, like depression and eating disorders.
- Parents, usually women, have had to make unbelievably difficult sacrifices like leaving their jobs and their careers to stay home and help their children with distance learning.
The science and the data support a return to in-person learning. The CDC says it is safe to do so. Over 100 private and parochial schools with over 15,000 students in San Francisco have been operating for months without any outbreaks. The City has stepped in to run 80 Community Learning Hubs, which have been offering in-person support to over 2,000 students for months without outbreaks. Public schools in Marin and Napa are open. Marin County has had schools open for three months, teaching 17,000 students, without a single case of transmission from student to teacher.
San Francisco has been a national leader in our response to COVID-19, but we can’t say the same for how we’ve responded with educating our students. Almost a year into this pandemic, it is simply unacceptable that parents and guardians haven’t been provided a date for when their kids will return to in-person learning. Families are paralyzed, unable to plan for their future. And they feel frustrated, especially as the School Board has made national headlines over efforts to rename many of the very same schools that they have no plan to actually reopen.
Ultimately this agreement needs to be reached by the School Board and the School District, but the City stands ready to help however we can, as we’ve been doing for months. We’ve provided Public Health guidance, testing support, financial resources, technology, and much more, and we remain willing to help. This is not an exhaustive list, and we‘re ready to do more, but let’s be clear on the facts and what we’ve done:
- In April, we partnered with non-profits and the School District to deploy 25 WiFi “Superspots” to areas that lacked the WiFi infrastructure for distance learning.
- Despite the City facing our own $1.5 billion deficit at the time, we provided an additional $15 million to the School District last year above our required contribution to help fund PPE, technology, extra cleaning, health screenings, and avoid layoffs.
- The City has independently opened and operated 80 Community Hubs, which provide in-person support for distance learning and out of school time activities for San Francisco’s highest needs children and youth. We’ve served 2,000 students, provided 800 family households within the Community Hubs Initiative with a laptop computer and 12 months of Internet at home for eligible families through its Internet Essentials program. Of the approximately 2,000 youth enrolled in the Community Hub Initiative, 96% of the youth are youth of color. 444 are residents of public housing, 152 are homeless, 64 live in SROs, 18 are foster youth, and 287 require language support. We’ve done this all for months without a single outbreak of COVID-19.
- In September 2020, the Department of Public Health issued guidance on how to safely reopen school. Our health experts, widely regarded to be among the best in the world, have been available to the School District and offering support for months.
- In November 2020, at the request of SFUSD, a School Site Assessment Team comprised of City Disaster Service Workers joined SFUSD staff to continue to assess school facilities on a classroom by classroom basis for their readiness to receive students and staff for in-person learning during this pandemic. These evaluations included things like operability of classroom windows; type of classroom furniture; presence of functional hand washing sinks; and basic working condition of the classroom.
- In December, the City partnered with the School District to provide funding to support surveillance COVID-19 testing for school employees.
Most recently our Public Health officials have reviewed and assessed the six elementary schools that the District has applied to reopen, and Public Health stands ready to do more once requested.
We are working with our healthcare providers to quickly move forward with vaccinations and getting to Tier 1B, which includes teachers, starting February 24th.
But we need an agreement between the District and the union representing our teachers that creates an actual timeline for opening our classrooms this school year to full-time instruction. Without a timeline, then there is no certainty our schools will reopen for in-person learning this year.
I know none of this is easy. Nothing about this pandemic or the choices we’ve had to make has been easy. I understand the concerns that some of our educators have and I agree they need more support. In fact, I led a ballot measure in the last election — that the voters of San Francisco supported — to raise $50 million per year to increase teacher pay. I know that some our teachers in higher risk categories aren’t able to return to the classroom right now. And I know that many other teachers are ready to return and remain frustrated at the District’s continued paralysis.
Just as we’ve been guided by the science and data throughout this pandemic, we need to continue doing the same now. Our public health officials have been some of the most conservative and cautious in the nation in terms of restrictions and reopening. We should continue to follow their advice on schools instead of adding new demands for returning to in-person learning that go above and beyond their recommendations.
The longer we wait, the longer our children continue to fall behind. No plan is going to be perfect, we’ll need to continue to adapt as circumstances change, just as we have with our approach to fighting this pandemic. But not having a plan in place at this point is just not acceptable. By doing so, we’re planning to fail, and we’re failing our students and our families.
It’s time to set a date for in-person learning to return this year for full-time instruction and work together to make it happen. We’re ready to help and we’ll continue to do everything we can to offer support.
San Francisco has led the nation in response to COVID-19, let’s do it again with our public education system.