When Maria Nuñez was left to suddenly guide her then 7-year-old son, through virtual learning in March 2020, all while taking care of her youngest child of three years, she was lost.
But not alone.
An immigrant, Spanish-speaking mother of two who like many was forced to abruptly adjust to the chaos of sheltering in place with school-age children, Nuñez—and other parents like her in San Francisco—found herself in a Zoom session getting a crash course in navigating her child’s virtual learning tasks.
And it was Gabriela López, the daughter of Mexican immigrants and current President of the San Francisco Board of Education, who was teaching the parents over Zoom.
“She has always been there to support us. Why? Because she listened to our needs,” Nuñez said of López. “If we didn’t have those sessions? We had already been on this new platform for a few days, and we didn’t know how to use it. It was difficult. And even more so for us as Spanish-speaking parents. Sometimes, it’s the language, it’s not knowing the technology. So, it was very challenging for us as Hispanic parents.”
López—alongside Board of Education commissioners Allison Collins and Faauuga Moliga—have been the targets of the aggressive Recall the SF School Board campaign, which will culminate in a special election on Feb. 15, where San Francisco voters will decide whether the three will remain on the board. The campaign, which is being spearheaded by wealthy techie parents and funded by billionaires and Republicans, alleges that the trio have acted with incompetence in respect to reopening SFUSD schools during the pandemic.
But those against the recall say that the commissioners, including López, acted in the interest of those students and families most impacted by the pandemic, who were disproportionately Black and Brown.
“Our sentiment is that these three people of color did not commit a crime. Recalls are for people who have committed a crime,” said Anabel Ibañez, co-president of the San Francisco Latinx Democratic Club. “The groups that were pushing for the reopening of the schools, they weren’t really looking in terms of the impact and effects that COVID has had and is having among the Latino community. In San Francisco, the Latino community was hit the hardest. Even though some families within the Latino community would say, ‘Yes, I want the school open.’ But there were a lot of families who were saying ‘no.’”
Tara Ramos, an educator at Sanchez Elementary School in the Mission District, has seen the impact this pandemic is having on Black and Brown families first hand and believes this campaign is capitalizing off of people’s despair to take down a democratically elected school board.
“I know that the Mission and the Bayview, neighborhoods where we have Latino and Black students, were more impacted by the pandemic than other neighborhoods in San Francisco,” Ramos said. “We had higher positivity rates, we had more people getting sick. You also have people with less access to resources, less access to housing, less access to unemployment benefits. Those were some of the things [López, Collins and Moliga] were keeping in mind when they were cautious of reopening schools.”
And with Omicron raging, Ramos’ fear is that reopened schools located in San Francisco neighborhoods that were hit hardest by COVID are going to struggle more than schools in less impacted neighborhoods.
“And that’s actually what’s happening today. I’m here in this school today, and you should see the amount of students who are absent. I had a first-grade class today that only had four students in it. And those four students are the ones who are fully vaccinated. And everyone else in the class has had to be sent home,” Ramos said.
“It’s not fair. And so those students now have less access to their education because of the pandemic. And this is something that we’re seeing in Mission schools. And our school board commissioners had that in mind. They were seeing how this disease isn’t impacting everybody the same way.”
The three board members were also highly criticized for their handling of controversial issues and policies that took racism and white supremacy head on. Those issues revolved around changing Lowell High School’s merit-based admissions to a lottery system, and the renaming of schools that had been previously named after colonizers and slaveowners.
“I’m a graduate of Lowell High School. And I think it should be the lottery system,” said Gabriel Medina, community organizer and former president of the San Francisco Latinx Democratic Club. “Latinos and Blacks were significantly underrepresented, not just among the population of the city, but especially among the population of the school district.”
But given the obscenely large donations coming in from notable billionaires and right-wingers, some in San Francisco believe there are more sinister motives behind the recall.
“I see this recall as an attack on our public schools, as institutions, as the ability to provide education for free,” said Medina. “All around the country, there’s these recall efforts from venture capitalists and capital forces that want to be able to weaken our public schools and create room for themselves to create private and charter schools, where they can profit and invest.”
One of those venture capitalists is 95-year-old billionaire and charter school supporter Arthur Rock, who has contributed a whopping total of $399,500 to the recall effort. Techie venture capitalist David Sacks—who once wrote that diversity and multiculturalism on college campuses were hurting education—dropped $74,500 to support the recall. And just last October, Sacks hosted a San Francisco fundraiser for Florida governor and Republican presidential hopeful, Ron DeSantis. DeSantis has become a darling of the far-right for both his attacks on mask and vaccine mandates and the teaching of actual racist American history in schools.
“When you start looking in terms of where this money is coming from…those people do not have the interest of the Latino community whatsoever,” Ibañez said.
He continued: “If you look at this at the national level, this is a trend where you see very right-wing conservatives trying to take over school boards. It’s a trend that if it’s manifested here in San Francisco, basically then it can happen anywhere. We know that there is an intentionality behind that. We know that public education is the last pillar of our democracy. And we need to make sure that stays strong and does not get privatized.”
Since 2016, immigrant parents have been able to vote in elections concerning San Francisco schools. Medina, who does outreach education with the Immigrant Voting Collaborative, estimates that there could be 65,000 immigrant parents eligible to vote in San Francisco. Part of their role is to see if voting is right for any given person, given their immigration status. “For a lot of these families, this is often the first time they’re voting in their life. And it’s for the school board. And it’s fulfilling because they’re serving their kids.”
People who are not citizens can vote in this election, so long as they register by Jan. 31, 2022. For more information, call (415) 554-4375 or visit sfelections.org/NCV.
“I ask the community to participate, to register, especially those who are undocumented,” Nuñez said. “We need to send a strong message. We are tired of others making decisions for us. These commissioners are our best allies and we will support them.”