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San Francisco Supervisors Increase Pressure on Schools to Reopen

San Francisco supervisors increased the pressure on schools to reopen Tuesday, passing a resolution that urged the city’s school district to shorten the timeline for bringing students back into classrooms.

The nonbinding resolution doesn’t set a deadline for reopening or spell out how the district should proceed. But supervisors want to send a strong message about the urgency of providing an option for in-person learning.

Speaking during a meeting held virtually, Supervisor Hillary Ronen invoked the city’s public commitment to values of equity and social justice in urging her colleagues to support the motion.

“I’m not sure anything is more important to these principles than getting our elementary age students who are failing during distance learning back in classrooms,” she said. “If we don’t, we will look back at this time and say we all failed.”

During the public comment period, Kevin Robinson, one of many San Francisco Unified School District parents who welcomed the resolution, cited the aphorism, “When white America sneezes, Black America gets pneumonia.”

“That’s literally and figuratively happening as we speak,” he said.  “Child abuse, eating disorders and suicide have been on the rise in communities of color.”

A Leonard Flynn Elementary School parent who introduced herself as Autumn appeared near tears as she told the supervisors that distance learning was affecting her job performance and her kindergartener’s mental health.

“Please, please help us,” she pleaded.

Other parents, meanwhile, expressed concerns about reopening. One mentioned teachers he knew who had contracted the virus after returning to the classroom, and he referred to an outbreak at his first grader’s summer camp.

The district had planned to start bringing students back to campuses Jan. 25, but school leaders announced last week they’d have to push that date back in order to reach a deal with employee unions.

School Board Vice President Gabriela Lopez said in a text message that the resolution could help solidify support from the unions and “ensure the City guarantees the safe working conditions we want for our staff.” But she also echoed concerns raised by teachers about the lack of understanding of what goes on in schools.

“To be frank, all the pressure and pushback comes from city leaders who don’t understand what working in a classroom entails. Nor are they currently out on the front lines,” she wrote.

She wrote that school board commissioners have previously approached supervisors with requests for items like fans for ventilation and mental health workers at school sites, and “They haven’t acted on it.”

San Francisco teacher Michelle Cody said she found it “really disrespectful that you all can’t even meet together in a room, and you want us teachers to go back and organize students. You don’t understand all the things that go into keeping kids safe.”

The resolution also calls on school leaders and staff to outline financial, technical and other needs so the city or private funders can help.

“Once there’s a plan, only then can this city help provide the school district with the necessary resources to help carry out that plan,” Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer said. “My hope is that my colleagues on this board will have the chance to help our school district reopen safely.”

—Vanessa Rancaño

Copyright 2020 KQED