SF's In-Person 'Learning Hubs' Had Zero COVID-19 Outbreaks. What Does This Mean for Reopening Public Schools?

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Music teacher Beth Wilmurt stands outside 826 Valencia where she teaches percussion twice a week to nine children as part of San Francisco's Learning Hubs program. (Lisa Bautista)

At 826 Valencia, a community center for kids in San Francisco’s Mission District, music instructor Beth Wilmurt watched on as some of her young students practice a clapping game she taught them.

"High five each other!" she said after they successfully complete several rounds.

826 Valencia is one of 78 locations around the city where children who are at highest risk of falling behind, including homeless and foster care students, have gathered to study, socialize and participate in after-school programs — like the one Wilmurt leads two days a week. Her class has nine children in it, ranging from kindergarteners to fifth grade.

"I feel very safe," Wilmurt said. "Each kid has their own station with a lot of space in between them. Everyone wears a mask. There are hand-washing stations. I have to write down my temperature every day and answer a few questions about my health."

Beth Wilmurt has her temperature taken every time she goes to teach at 826 Valencia for the Learning Hubs program. (Lisa Bautista)

Wilmurt's classes are part of San Francisco's network of Community Learning Hubs. The program — which involves a partnership between the city, a slew of community organizations such as 826 Valencia, the Jamestown Community Center and the San Francisco Community Music Center, and corporations like Comcast — has served around 2,000 K-12 students in small, in-person groups over the past few months without a single reported outbreak of COVID-19.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed is touting the success of the program's first semester as a model for the potential safe reopening of the city's public schools for in-person learning, which have remained shuttered for months.

Meanwhile, many private schools have brought students and teachers back into their buildings.

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"While some people are questioning whether that's safe to bring our public school students back to the classroom, it's important to keep in mind that we haven't had any outbreaks at these hubs or at the private schools that have already opened for in-person learning," Breed said at a press briefing about the program earlier this week. "The lessons we've learned at the hubs can inform the hard work that we're doing right now to reopen our public schools."

Director of San Francisco’s Department of Children, Youth and their Families Maria Su said private schools currently open for in-person learning, with their 15,000 students, have even been following the hubs’ safety protocols.

"It's not just 2,000 kids and no COVID," Su told KQED in an interview. "It's actually over 17,000 and no COVID outbreaks."

The numbers are heartening to some epidemiologists.

"It's great to have the evidence that we can open our schools safely," said Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at UCSF.

But she also expressed caution.

"We are right now in a little bit of a surge," Bibbins-Domingo said. "The way in which we can ensure that in January we can do this safely is if everybody does their part now over the holidays; to do the social distancing, keeping your network small, so that our positivity rate and our community transmission stays low."

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Beyond the current COVID-19 surge concerns, reopening cash-strapped public schools with the necessary health and safety standards in place poses a challenge.

Su said the city had to hire 500 people to staff its learning hubs’ small classes, which have no more than 14 kids, all while maintaining the necessary sanitization protocols.

"It is really expensive," Su said.

The total cost of running the program for these few thousand children is $50 million for the year. This is only a tiny fraction of San Francisco's public school population of 52,000 students.

On top of that, the San Francisco Unified School District labor unions are pushing back against the idea of bringing students and teachers back to their classrooms anytime soon.

On Friday, the SFUSD issued an announcement about health and safety criteria the unions would like to see the district follow before any return to in-person learning can happen.

"The District cannot meet all of the new requirements SFUSD’s labor unions have proposed and there is not sufficient time to complete bargaining in order to reopen any school sites on Jan. 25," the statement said. "Most significantly, our labor groups have proposed that no staff or students return to in-person learning until the City and County is in the state’s orange tier, indicating 'moderate' spread of COVID-19, for 14 consecutive days.

"This differs from the plan adopted by the Board of Education and permitted under state and local health orders, which allow schools in counties rated in the most restrictive purple tier to reopen for in-person instruction if they receive a waiver."

Mayor Breed responded angrily to the unions' demands on Friday.

"We can’t create unrealistic standards for in-person learning that aren’t even recommended by the Department of Public Health," said Breed in a statement. "I understand the concerns of some of our teachers who are in the vulnerable population, and we should listen to them. But let’s be honest: San Francisco’s public health officials have been among the most conservative in the country in terms of reopening. When they say our schools can start opening again, our kids should be in the classroom the next day."

For now, the city plans to continue with its Community Learning Hubs program and expects to enroll 1,000 more students in January.