Questions Linger As San Francisco Schools Aim to Reopen Next Month

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An aerial view of the schoolyard at Frank McCoppin Elementary School on March 18, 2020 in San Francisco. According to the most recent announcement by the San Francisco Unified School District, only students in pre-kindergarten to fifth grade will be invited back to in-person learning on April 12. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

It’s been a couple of days since the San Francisco Unified School District announced a tentative agreement with the teachers union to start reopening some schools for in-person learning on April 12 — but teachers and parents still say they don’t know the details.

María Quelx lives in the Mission District and has eight children. Four of them are in elementary school. On Saturday, she wasn’t aware that some schools would reopen and that SFUSD had presented a timeline.

“I would like for someone to let me know, for someone to tell me or my kids because I had no idea,” she said. Quelx doesn't use a computer or speak English so she has a hard time keeping up to date with every school development.

While the United Educators of San Francisco announced on Friday they’ve reached an agreement that outlines how hybrid learning will work, some teachers still don’t have the details, said Maureen Sullivan, a bilingual teacher-librarian at Dolores Huerta Elementary School.

“How will we be teaching distance learning students as well as in-person learning students at the same time?” Sullivan asked.

UESF plans to hold a meeting on Monday to give teachers more information. The union expects to roll out in-person learning in phases and is initially focusing on students in prekindergarten to second grade. The agreement still needs to be approved by union membership.

“It took a lot of hard work and a lot of time and compromise and back-and-forth,” said UESF President Susan Solomon. “The focus is on pre-K to second grade first and then expanding to fifth grade and then all students in special education programs.”

Teachers are expected to vote on the tentative agreement this week. It allows students to remain with the teacher they had for remote learning, and class sizes will continue to be 22 students in the primary grades. The deal also requires that face masks, hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment be available to all educators.

A screenshot from the SFUSD presentation 'Return to In-Person Learning Update,' published on Feb. 9, 2021, which shows what a typical classroom layout could look like in schools that are allowed to reopen. (Courtesy of SFUSD)

The school district also plans to install plexiglass partitions on each teacher’s desk. Additionally, each student will be offered a box with school supplies to avoid sharing.

The union hasn’t committed to providing in-person learning to students at the middle and high school level before the end of the semester.

“It does feel pretty unlikely,” Solomon said.

The union believes that these protections — in addition to increased ventilation, frequent testing of students and vaccinations for on-site staff — will keep teachers safe, said Solomon.

SFUSD said on Twitter it’s “on track to offer in-person learning options at a select number of schools for the District’s youngest students starting on April 12, 2021.”

On its website, the district stated not all elementary schools will open. Only six elementary schools are currently ready to welcome back students: Alvarado, Cobb, Glen Park, Lawton, Muir and Sunset.

The school district is allowing families to choose whether to send their children back to their classrooms or continue with distance learning. They plan to offer every eligible student up to five days of in-person instruction per week.

Unclear Daily Logistics

According to the union, teachers at the selected schools will have two weeks to prepare their classrooms and lesson plans before they’re asked to return. Sullivan, the teacher-librarian at Dolores Huerta Elementary School, is relieved the union has reached a deal with the district, but still has a lot of questions.

“We still don’t have a clear understanding of what recess will be like and how lunchtime will work. And what the day-to-day schedule looks like,” she said.

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Sullivan has two children — ages 9 and 13 — and her partner works as a nurse at San Francisco General Hospital. She wants the union and the district to explain what resources the agreement provides for teachers who have children that are still learning remotely. One solution she’d like is for the district to open its small in-person learning hubs to the children of teachers.

“I don’t feel comfortable leaving [my daughter] at home by herself all day,” Sullivan said. “I’d like to know what the plan is and if educators will have the chance to get their kids into learning hubs.”

Sullivan's school, Dolores Huerta Elementary, is on the border of Noe Valley and Bernal Heights. SFUSD has assigned it to reopen in the next wave of in-person learning. No official date has been given as to when that will begin.

More than 100 parents, teachers and community members from Dolores Huerta Elementary signed a letter addressed to San Francisco Mayor London Breed and the Board of Supervisors asking that officials provide clearer information on issues like access to public transportation for parents when the school opens up again.

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A Sense of Urgency

Parents like Quelx, who lives in the Mission, say the school district hasn’t done a good job communicating with parents who don’t speak English or don't have easy access to the internet.

While Quelx fears that schools may be reopening too quickly, she believes that the best place for her kids to learn is inside a classroom. She says it's been difficult for her them to participate in online learning at the same time. There are bandwidth issues, and also the noise. Her children wear headphones during their lessons.

And while she is trying to support them, Quelx says she can’t keep up with the various challenges, which range from the Wi-Fi dropping out, to keeping on top of her kids’ schedules.

“They’re still little, so it’s been hard for me,” she explained. “I really want my kids to go back to school.”

Quelx is worried about their health. A few months ago, she and some of her children got very sick with COVID-19. She doesn’t want to go through that again.

Quelx said her decision will be based on getting information about the protections the school district committed to putting in place. And she wants to know who will make sure the district keeps to the agreement. At the same time, she does feel a sense of urgency to get her kids back in school. She says keeping them at home grows more complicated every day.

“It’s been really difficult for me, there’s no other way to say it,” she said.

KQED's Holly McDede contributed to this report.

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