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Survey: Most SF Families Living in Chinatown Communal Housing Don't Want Their Kids Back in School

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Mom crouches down with hand in young kid's enormous pink backpack, both wearing baseball caps and masks
Joyce Lee gets ready to drop off her daughter at Gordon Lau Elementary School in San Francisco on April 21, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED News)

Hundreds of parents who live in communal housing in San Francisco are organizing with a singular message: Keep our kids out of school.

The Chinatown Community Development Center, which owns and operates communal housing in the city, measured that fear directly: Of 294 families living in such housing who answered a recent survey, representing roughly 400 SFUSD students, 70% oppose in-person learning for their kids, and only 30% are in support.

Most of those families surveyed lived in Chinatown, and many identify as Chinese or Chinese American, said the Chinatown CDC. The organization surveyed its tenants who have at least one child under 18 living in their household, by phone the week before SFUSD's fall semester started.

Those who support in-person learning largely said they were worried about unemployment benefits expiring in September, and need to send their children back to school so the adults can work.

On the other hand, those who oppose bringing their kids back to school are especially concerned that children under 12 are not yet vaccinated, and are worried that schools aren’t providing enough ventilation. They also voiced concern over COVID transmission on public transit and asked whether school buses could help mitigate that concern.

But despite the opposition to in-person learning, many of these families don't have much of a choice.

The new data comes after more than a year of public drumbeating to reopen schools during the pandemic voiced by the city’s most vocal parents — with “decrease the distance!” becoming their signature rallying cry — leading into the San Francisco Unified School District opening its doors to kids in August.

But just one week before that fateful day, on Aug. 10, a swarm of equally furious parents stormed SFUSD’s monthly (virtual) meeting. Their request? The exact opposite the public had heard for months. These parents wanted their kids to stay home.

More than 2,000 of them — mostly Chinese and Chinese American — signed a petition asking SFUSD to offer more options for their kids to safely evade the increasingly spreading delta variant.

“We are concerned that the start of in-person learning in Fall will lead to greater infection rates, not only in the children themselves, but also for vulnerable family members,” their letter read. “We do not wish to force distance learning upon everyone, but believe it is imperative to provide it to those families who need it.”

Protest sign saying "I want school! Full time. I miss my friends" in foreground of crowd before City Hall. Protestors in yellow T-shirts, Mayor Breed at podium in background.
Mayor London Breed speaks during a rally to reopen San Francisco public schools on March 13, 2021, the one-year anniversary of school buildings being closed. (Beth LaBerge/KQED) (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

That effort comes as no surprise to Jen Chan, resident services manager at the Chinatown CDC, who works with families who live in the organization's single-room occupancy housing, many of whom are Chinese and Chinese American. She says living conditions may be one reason those families would prefer to keep their kids at home, especially in single-room occupancy housing.

SROs are communal spaces where families often live in a single room, sharing kitchens and bathrooms with tenants on the same floor — families who may be especially concerned about being unable to quarantine should the worst happen.

“There's a lot of fear,” Chan said. And that fear may be particular to the Chinese community due to hard-lived experience, she said.

“A lot of our families were immigrants, right? They have heard of the outbreaks of SARS, the outbreak of COVID in their home countries in Hong Kong and in China. And they understand and have been impacted by people getting sick in their family. Deaths in their family,” she said.

The notion that scores of parents want their kids to stay at home may be a surprise to those reading news headlines for the last year.

Local news has for months amplified the voices of more organized groups like Decreasing the Distance. Some of those more amplified voices are calling for schools to reopen sooner rather than later, and are even recalling San Francisco school board members based on the idea that they single-handedly kept kids home.

And their message has largely dominated the conversation about schools.

But when it came time to finally let kids back in classrooms, the 450 online spots for distance learning provided by the district were quickly gobbled up. The school district has admitted 700 students who applied by July 30 to be in their online learning program, said SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick.

But that isn’t the sum total of the students wanting to stay home.

To accommodate that growing number, SFUSD opened its applications for one of two independent learning programs with a deadline of Aug. 27.

But, Dudnick added, “we strongly encourage students who are able to participate in in-person learning to do so, as it is the best option for the vast majority of students.”

And the number of families who want distance learning may be far higher than the official ones known to SFUSD. Chan told KQED some who desire distance learning haven’t applied for fear of losing priority in their desired schools, and many think distance learning isn’t even an option.

But it’s one they’d take if they had the chance.

Pushing for more open spots, local parents and parents of kids in SRO hotels are organizing for their own interests, demanding more distance learning options. KQED has seen screenshots of their group discussions on WeChat — the social media platform of choice for many in the Chinese community — with more than 800 people clamoring for distance learning options.

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In a second letter, sent Aug. 24, the families laid out their requests: rapid testing available for students of SRO families, SFUSD staff who can be point people to work with SRO families to ensure safety precautions are catered to their specific situations, more choices in remote learning, more language access for school emails to parents and, most of all, more input.

"All decisions must be made with SRO families, by them, and resolutions of their concerns," the letter reads. "Families demand to be engaged so that they can provide meaningful input and direct policies."

Board of Education President Gabriela López says she's working on a resolution with fellow board members to call on the district to address the SRO families' specific asks.

"We have been hearing from and connecting with many families in order to address these serious concerns," López said.

SFUSD Board of Education commissioner Jenny Lam also has been meeting with these SRO families.

"We've been hearing from families for many months as we've been planning the full return," Lam said. "The timing is, while we were returning to in-person [learning], the delta variant was also surging through the city and throughout the state. We are seeing that stabilization now of the delta variant and the positive cases, but certainly empathize and understand the concerns from families."

While Lam characterized these concerns as a recent development, the desire to maintain distance learning has been bubbling up for months, Chan from Chinatown CDC said.

Even as far back as April, Lang Xie, another Chinatown SRO resident, shared similar concerns with KQED — even before the delta variant reared its head.

Xie lives in an SRO with her husband and 10-year-old daughter, Vicky, who attends Gordon J. Lau Elementary School. Both Xie and her husband are fully vaccinated but said they feel uncomfortable sending Vicky back to school.

“In my opinion, it is still kind of concerning. Even though we are vaccinated, the risk of being infected is still there. If there is nothing important, we would avoid going outside as much as possible,” she said.

Like others who live in SRO hotels, sharing a single room means they have no space to quarantine from one another, a concern Xie shares, despite some city resources open to them.

Because of those fears, Vicky learned from home during the spring semester, only returning to Gordon J. Lau Elementary School in the fall — but only because the family felt they had no other options.

Vicky was far from alone.

Of roughly 750 students at Gordon J. Lau Elementary School, only 13 returned during the first week of school last April when in-person learning started again.

The school is more than 80% Asian, and many students are Chinese, with the school sitting squarely in Chinatown, right along Stockton Street.

SFUSD, then, had long seen signs that many Chinese families weren’t ready to return to school, even before the delta variant rose. And San Francisco isn’t unique in that regard.


Surveys have shown this for months

Multiple surveys conducted during the pandemic have shown a stark divide in who wants to return to in-person learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Throughout the pandemic, no matter what level of response was given, the ratios were often the same: White families overwhelmingly want to return to school, and Black and Latino families often want to return, but by a far slimmer majority than White families. But Asian families, and Chinese families in particular, are often far less likely to wish to return to in-person learning.

In May, the latest month available, just 27% of Asian families of fourth graders nationally were enrolled in in-person instruction, versus 66% of white families, according to a survey by the Institute of Education Sciences. The institute is the statistics, research, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Education.

And according to that same survey, a whopping 51% of Asian families preferred to learn remotely, compared to just 14% of white families.

Closer to home, in an Oakland Unified School District survey circulated in March, 44% of Asian families were ready to return to in-person learning, the smallest number of any ethnic group. And in one December survey conducted by SFUSD, only 36% of Asian families said they’re returning to in-person learning, versus 80% of white families.

People living in SRO buildings — like the tenants highlighted by the Chinatown Community Development Center’s survey — feel particularly vulnerable to COVID.

“Everything’s communal [in an SRO]," Chan said. “It’s a big worry that other units are going to spread [COVID] to them and vice versa.”

Long, spare, clean hallway with older Chinese residents standing in their doorways
Residents of single-room occupancy hotels fear they have little ability to quarantine due to living in close quarters, with shared bathrooms and kitchens. Seen here, residents of an SRO building on Clayton Street in San Francisco pose for a photo in May 2020. (Photo courtesy Chinatown Community Development Center) (Photo courtesy Chinatown Community Development Center)

To date, 1,397 people living in SROs have tested positive for COVID-19, spread across 269 SRO buildings, with 26 deaths as a result of the virus, according to the city's COVID-19 dashboard. By April, roughly 412 people from SROs had stayed in city-provided quarantine sites. The statistics are no longer publicly posted.

In theory, San Francisco does provide hotel rooms for people living in SROs without their own space to separate when sick. But health professionals don’t always recommend those rooms as an option for SRO residents, and residents don’t always know of their existence.

In one such tightly packed SRO building, Jun Chang Tan lives in a single room with his wife, 15-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter. He lived on unemployment for most of the summer, after his wife lost her job at a salon that closed during the pandemic and he lost hours at his job as a custodian, a job he only regained a few months ago. During the pandemic, his kids have largely learned from home.

Tan said in April that he didn’t want his children returning to school yet. He says he can’t be sure they’re safe from COVID-19.

The city prioritized SRO residents for the vaccine, and Tan and his wife eagerly got their shots. But with no space to quarantine, Tan didn’t want his kids to risk becoming infected at school, and he especially fears the vaccine will not protect against new variants of the virus.

“Even though you are vaccinated, there is still a risk,” Tan says. “If they come in contact with COVID at school and bring it back home, then I do not have enough room because we live in a small apartment.”

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KQED asked Commissioner Lam if, were she speaking directly to Tan, she would say that sending his children back to school is safe?

"I would say yes, it is," Lam said. "I would encourage Mr. Tan that absolutely we have the proper protocols and guidelines in place."

Lam is a parent herself, with two SFUSD high schoolers already returning to school. Lam said for learning's sake — and emotional well-being — learning in person is the best option for children.

By the fall semester, Tan did let his daughter return to school because, he said, he has no feasible choice, and because SFUSD had too few slots for distance learning. He also thinks SFUSD has too high of a requirement to prove your kid can be kept out of school — namely, one of two programs available asks kids who are “medically fragile” to apply.

When Tan finally let his daughter return to Yick Wo Elementary for the fall semester, however, they got a phone call on the third day: Class would be canceled.

A kid in his daughter’s class tested positive for COVID.

There have been 71 reported positive cases in pre-K through fifth grade elementary schools in SFUSD, and 16 reported positive cases in pre-K through eighth grade schools, according to SFUSD's COVID dashboard.

Community-minded solutions

Back at Gordon J. Lau Elementary School in April, Principal Gloria Choy sat near a sobbing child dressed in a Spider-Man costume.

She said the families who were fearful to return during that spring semester, and to more broadly return, weren’t just afraid of COVID, but of the violence against the Asian community, too.

Principal Gloria Choy at Gordon Lau Elementary School in San Francisco's Chinatown on April 21, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED) (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

One of Choy’s school families was attacked riding a Muni bus from Market Street to pick up a free Wi-Fi hot spot from Gordon J. Lau in March. “This person was eyeing them the whole time. And when she got on the bus, the person yanked her backpack and her purse,” Choy said. The would-be thief got frustrated when bystanders tried to help. He “got upset, and just punched her in the face. So my [school] parents, they’re afraid,” Choy said.

And families fear that violence may continue even as the pandemic subsides and children return to school in droves.

About 50% of SFUSD elementary school families traditionally commute by car, 25% walk, 10% take public transit and 10% take yellow school buses, according to district data. But Choy’s school has a much higher proportion of kids busing from outside the neighborhood. About half of Gordon J. Lau families live on the other side of the city, Choy says. They all take Muni in.

Stop AAPI Hate’s most recent national count saw 9,081 hate incidents reported to the organization from March 19, 2020, through June 2021. Of those hate incidents, 10% were reported by kids age 17 and younger. This number likely undercounts the rate of hate incidents against kids, the organization says.

The Stop AAPI Hate Youth Campaign conducted in the summer of 2020 found that 77% of AAPI youth surveyed were angry over anti-Asian hate in the U.S., with 60% expressing disappointment over racism, and 30% of AAPI youth expressing fear.

Stop AAPI Hate also released a report on racism’s effects on Asian youth, alongside a long list of recommendations for policymakers and school districts.

Among them: asking school officials to denounce hate, integrating ethnic studies and anti-racism curricula into coursework, establishing anonymous reporting systems for bullying, holding trainings with teachers and faculty on anti-Asian hate and discrimination, and boosting multilingual outreach to parents and families with culturally responsive mental health resources.

In San Francisco, a few of these recommendations are already underway: In March the San Francisco Board of Education made ethnic studies a graduation requirement, and they have disseminated an extensive and ever-growing document to educators with resources on emotionally processing and combating hate against the AAPI community.

Vincent Matthews, SFUSD’s superintendent, addressed that fear back in a March school board meeting, and has done so repeatedly since.

“The pandemic has brought a lot of pain and suffering for many, and with it conspiracy theories scapegoating the Asian community for the COVID-19 pandemic,” Matthews said in March. “We have to stand together against violence perpetrated against any member of our community, and right now there is an increase in violence against our Asian brothers and sisters. It is unacceptable and we must recommit ourselves to creating safe communities for each and every person. Your child’s physical and emotional safety is our priority whether we are in distance learning or in person."

Commissioner Lam also said she attended a town hall for monolingual Chinese families just in August, where she and her colleagues did their best to hear the concerns of families.

While the district has held Cantonese-language town halls, Lai Wa Wu, a policy director from the Chinese Progressive Association, said it felt like the community was being talked to, not with.

“It's not so much giving them more information, it's about shifting, creating spaces for there to be real long-term dialogue,” she said. “And that includes resourcing these spaces and taking these spaces seriously, where you give information to the community to help them make more informed decisions.”

Hearing that concern, Lam said she's making an effort to get more staff to bridge the gap with the SRO community, and the monolingual Chinese community. She's hoping to arrange a meeting between their representatives and Superintendent Matthews soon.

"We're living through a pandemic that we have not lived through before in over a century. So certainly there are a lot of unknowns and certainty how we live through this together, and we are calling upon our institutions to be able to serve its people," Lam said. "And so I take that responsibility wholeheartedly. Are there things that the district needs to do better? Of course, we always need to be doing better."

But for Principal Choy, the solutions need not be grandiose. Even the simple act of providing yellow school buses for kids to avoid attacks on public transit would be a huge help.

Other solutions may require even more legwork.


Bringing kids back

KQED spoke to one of the only 13 students to return to Gordon J. Lau Elementary School in April: Amy Lee.

On her first day back in the spring, Amy was more than ready for school: She dressed in her warm kitty-cat sweater and carried her pink backpack on her shoulders.

Joyce — Amy’s mother — and Amy's story shows something unique, Principal Choy says: trust.

Joyce was relieved when Amy returned to school in the spring. She volunteers at a local YMCA doing relief work with families hit hard by the pandemic and can take work meetings with more ease.

“I am always happy to find the time to do volunteer work and help out the community. Because we are from a low-income family, my abilities are limited and I am only able to help to a certain extent,” she says.

So while Amy returned to school before hundreds of her peers, the Lee family also has an advantage many of her classmates don’t: She lives in the same neighborhood as her school.

A staple of San Francisco’s historic Chinatown since 1952, the Ping Yuen affordable housing project on Pacific Avenue is home to more than 400 people. That includes Amy and Joyce. And on that particular Wednesday in April, the second day of school, she practically dragged her mom out the door with excitement.

Amy knows where her classmates are this year: “They’re at Zoom,” she told KQED, as if Zoom were a place.

Joyce Lee and her daughter Amy check in with Gordon Lau Elementary School staff in San Francisco on April 21, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED) (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

As we all walked together to Gordon J. Lau Elementary School, Joyce talked about the advantages of having Amy back in school, especially helpful as COVID ravages the finances of many families.

With fewer child-watching duties, Joyce may be able to find additional work to supplement their income. Her husband lost his restaurant job during the pandemic, and they have two other children: a toddler, and a teenager attending Galileo Academy of Science and Technology.

“I feel safe allowing my children to return to school because the COVID-19 pandemic in the city has already reduced to a lower risk, the vaccine is available now, and the school district and school have held a meeting with parents about returning to campus,” Lee said during the spring semester.

But that trust hasn’t come easily to the rest of the community.

“I think some of our Chinese community are still afraid of getting even their shots of vaccines,” Choy says. “I think they have to trust that the vaccine is going to work. I think they have to also trust that our school is going to keep them safe. They're going to have to trust that, you know, when they get on the bus to come to school” they’ll be safe.

That trust is tenuous. That trust takes time to earn. It takes more than just a translated flyer or a town hall from a school district — it takes resources, effort and genuine back-and-forth conversation.

And to assure the safety of the community during the fall semester, that trust needs to come soon.

Some interviews for this story were conducted in Cantonese with the help of a community translator, recorded and later translated for publication. Translations were conducted for KQED by Sophie Liang.


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