‘A Light at the End of the Tunnel’: Some San Francisco Kids Return to In-Person School

4 min
Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

Mom and daughter wearing masks outside school
César Chávez Elementary School mom Cynthia Peña and her second grader, Ayaline Cabrera wait to have their health forms checked on the way into school on the first day back to campus on April 12, 2021 in San Francisco's Mission District. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

In San Francisco on Monday, a long-forgotten sound will finally ring out — bouncing off concrete, soaring over grass and echoing between the city’s Victorian homes to the ears of parents and children across the city.

School bells and buzzers will sound off.

After a year of pandemic closures, in-person classes are back in session for some students in pre-K through second grade, with a staggered schedule of which schools will welcome kids inside beginning April 12. More students from those grades will start on April 19, which will also mark the (also staggered) return of third through fifth graders.

“Trapped inside a three-bedroom apartment with four kids for a year, it does feel like a light at the end of the tunnel,” said San Francisco parent Andy Martone, who spoke to KQED on Sunday.

The 42-year-old software engineer and his wife live in the Mission District, and their 6-year-old twin daughters are set to return to school this week. Martone remembers when he told his twins the news.

Sponsored

“One of them said, ‘I can’t wait to do more math equations!’ I was like, ‘Oh really?’ The other one said, ‘I can’t wait to see my teacher in person,’ ” Martone said.

Still, not all the city’s students will find themselves in classrooms this week. Or even this semester.

San Francisco lags behind other California cities in reopening, with some Berkeley and Oakland students filling classrooms weeks ago. And there are still many lingering questions — for instance, when will teenagers be back in San Francisco Unified School District classrooms?

The San Francisco Board of Education voted last week to put all kids back in classrooms this fall, but those plans are so far just written in classroom chalk, not stone.

The San Francisco Board of Education has put itself on record as wanting kids back in classrooms in the fall, as seen in KQED's coverage, above.

The reopening efforts have been clouded by clashes between city politicians, some vocal parent groups and the school board. The city of San Francisco sued the school district to speed up its reopening process, a school commissioner caused community furor over her tweets, which some have called racist, and the board recently put on hold its controversial decision to rename 44 high schools related to historical figures with pasts ostensibly tied to racism. Nearly all of these tussles prompted acrimony on all sides even as many students’ ability to learn via hours of screen time instruction plummeted.

Another challenge still facing the district is that not all families yet feel safe or otherwise able to return to in-person learning. About 67% of kindergarten through second grade families and 70% of third through fifth grade families surveyed wish to return for in-person learning, according to an SFUSD survey released in March.

Jun Chang Tan is a custodian who lives with his family in a single room occupancy hotel in Chinatown. His 15-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter both attend San Francisco schools, but he’s not ready to let either return to classrooms.

Since all four live in a room together, he said even a remote chance of catching COVID-19 is still too dangerous for them — they lack the space to quarantine themselves from each other, should the worst happen. SRO’s are congregate settings where people living in rooms share kitchens and bathrooms with others on their floors, another worry for those trying to quarantine.

“There won’t be any space for quarantine,” he said in Cantonese, which was translated by KQED. “That’s one room for four of us.” When his kids are home, he feels he can help them stay safe. But they take Muni to get to school, where he fears he has "no control over" who they'd have contact with.

With some students in school, and some still at home, teachers are finding themselves split in their duties. Andrew Patel is one of those teachers juggling multiple cohorts — in person and online — at Leonard R. Flynn Elementary School on Cesar Chavez Street, a stone’s throw from Precita Park.

Patel said it’s important not to forget why distance learning started in the first place.

“We went to distance learning because of COVID-19 and we're still, as a community, experiencing a lot of loss and a lot of hardship. And we have to think about what we're going to do as a school to bring joy and healing and feel good once we return while also staying safe in our classrooms," he said.

That will be no easy task. Like other schools where demand has been high to return to physical classrooms, when Patel’s school reopens he will divide up his class, welcoming eight students who are his “cohort A” kids into his physical classroom while signing on to Zoom with eight other children, who will be in class from home. There is not enough space to accommodate them safely in his classroom, he said, hence the split. But cohort A and B students will each spend some time in class, and some time on Zoom.

Patel must also plan to continue the distance learning curriculum for two more students who are in “cohort C,” whose parents have opted to keep them in distance learning the entire time.

Not every teacher feels safe returning yet. SFUSD staffers can request accommodations to work remotely should they belong to a group of increased risk, with a substitute teacher assigned to buttress in-person learning. So far, 584 SFUSD staffers requested accommodations, and 290 have met the criteria for approval, according to SFUSD.

But the district will still need educators present to meet student demand. At a recent Board of Education meeting, SFUSD staff said only 91 new substitute teacher applications have been received, prompting a warning from staff that “current substitute teacher availability does not meet anticipated need.” The district is exploring “additional options” to deploy other staff as needed.

In the tweet above, SFUSD seeks new hires to help meet the demand of students. 

And for those who are returning, teachers have even another layer of complexity to worry about when returning to in-person learning — their own children.

Sanchez Elementary School teacher-librarian Tara Ramos will spend Monday performing an intake of kids at her school, helping to supervise all the new rules and procedures kids and staff must follow for safety, from distancing to hand-washing. As she juggles that challenge, her own 8-year-old daughter will be attending an in-person school hub.

Ramos said she feels lucky that her husband can start work a little later to drop her daughter off at school, “but that’s not everybody’s situation.” There’s a “void of child care for teachers,” she said.

Equity issues arise in SF school reopening battle

Still, despite the challenges, Ramos said her school worked carefully with families in the Mission District, many of whom are Latino and especially impacted by the pandemic, to find ways to educate their children in the safest ways possible.

“Most of our families live in the Mission neighborhood, and we know what they have been more impacted by COVID,” Ramos said. “I feel proud of us that we are being so careful with their health and safety.”

But the flip side of that is schools may be hyperfocused on safety for the foreseeable future, Ramos said, which may hurt their ability to concentrate on learning.

“How can we still make school fun? How can we still have engaging activities for kids?” Ramos said. “I just think that’s the part maybe people aren’t necessarily considering, like how much this undertaking is really about safety and not so much about learning.”

Sponsored

KQED’s Vanessa Rancaño, Julia McEvoy and Julia Chan contributed to this story.