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SF School Board Commits to Full Fall Reopening, Suspends School Renaming Effort

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San Francisco Unified School District families and educators rally at City Hall in San Francisco on March 13, 2021, in support of opening schools on the one-year anniversary of school buildings being closed. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The San Francisco Board of Education unanimously committed this week to fully reopening all district schools in time for the start of the fall semester.

During its lengthy meeting on Tuesday that ran late into the evening, the board also voted to suspend a contentious push to rename 44 of its schools that honor figures linked to historical racism or oppression, an issue it said it would revisit only after all students in the district have returned to their classrooms five days a week.

That move marks an effort by board members to fully invest in reopening schools and to shift focus away from the numerous controversies it has recently been entangled in.

Under the resolution committing to a full return in the fall, authored by Commissioner Jenny Lam, students can still opt to continue with distance learning if they prefer.

In arguing for reopening, the resolution underscores the mental health toll that not being in school for a year has had on many students, citing a 66% increase in the number of suicidal children coming to the emergency room at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital in the past year, and a 75% increase in youth who have required hospitalization for mental health services.

Elementary school students in the district can return to in-person classes starting next week, and some high-needs older students will return later this month. But there is still no plan in place for reopening most middle and high schools before the end of the school year.

"I think you all know how impassioned I feel about returning our students back to in-person learning after being in distance learning and navigating this pandemic for over a year," Lam told attendees at the meeting. "I just want to acknowledge and share that I feel and hear the pain, the fear, the frustration, the heartbreak."


The vote comes on the heels of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement Tuesday aiming for a "full reopening" of the state on June 15, should vaccination supplies be sufficiently high and hospitalizations remain low.

Newsom said that should clear the way for most students to return to their classrooms.

"I want kids back in person. I want kids back in schools safely for in-person instruction," he said. “On June 15 we anticipate there’ll be no barrier to getting all our kids safely back."

During the meeting, students and parents expressed frustration that the board has devoted so much time to issues unrelated to school reopenings.

Lowell High School senior Zoe Simotas implored board members to stay focused on the students they were elected to support.

“If you aren't here to fight for students, we don't want you here,” she said. “It feels like SFUSD is falling apart. I’m not part of a family that can afford private school. If SFUSD crashes and burns, which it feels like it is, we have no other option. So please pull yourself together.”

Along with the school renaming push, and the furor it sparked, the board has also come under intense fire for its recent move to strip Lowell High School of its merit-based admissions policies. And it is now entangled in a conflict involving one of its own board members, Alison Collins, who was removed last week from several leadership positions after the discovery of a set of inflammatory tweets she wrote in 2016, sharply criticizing Asian Americans. Collins has since sued the district and her fellow board members — to the tune of nearly $90 million — claiming her constitutional rights were violated.

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Amid the ongoing tumult, San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Vincent Matthews, who recently announced plans to retire in June, reversed course this week, saying he would remain in the position for an additional year after board members requested he stay.

In January, the board was lambasted by many parents and officials — as well conservative observers — for its 6-1 vote to rename dozens of schools, an effort that was later found to have been based on flimsy research, including an over-reliance on Wikipedia.

Other critics, including alumni association members of Abraham Lincoln High School — one of the schools that was slated to be renamed — said the board failed to adequately include community members in the process.

The board on Tuesday unanimously approved the resolution to suspend the effort, saying it "wishes to avoid the distraction and wasteful expenditure of public funds in frivolous litigation."

San Francisco Mayor London Breed has for months criticized the board for taking on the issue in the midst of the pandemic.

"What I cannot understand is why the School Board is advancing a plan to have all these schools renamed by April, when there isn't a plan to have our kids back in the classroom by then," Breed said in a January statement.

"Our students are suffering, and we should be talking about getting them in classrooms, getting them mental health support, and getting them the resources they need in this challenging time."

KQED's Matthew Green and Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez contributed to this article.

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