In what has deemed quite an unusual move, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera announced on Feb. 3, that he had filed a lawsuit against the San Francisco United School District (SFUSD) and the San Francisco Board of Education (BOE) on the grounds that their plans to reopen the city’s public schools were “woefully inadequate and [didn’t] meet the basic requirements set by the state” to offer in-person, classroom instruction whenever possible.
Mayor London Breed publicly voiced her full support for the lawsuit at the same time, adding that “the City has offered resources and staff to get our school facilities ready and to support testing for our educators…We’ve offered the guidance and expertise of the Department of Public Health…We need to get our schools open.”
But despite the claims made by Herrera and Breed, it should be noted that the SFUSD’s website has had fairly detailed reopening guidelines posted since at least the beginning of December, months before Herrera filed the suit.
And while Breed is not wrong for wanting schools to reopen, many educators want to be back in the classroom as well. When looking at the number of mechanisms that need to be aligned with each other in order to achieve a successful and safe reopening, it becomes understandable why the schools have yet to do so.
According to Frank Lara, a San Francisco public school teacher and union leader, reopening the schools is a complex, multi-layered process that must somehow appease the members of the United Educators of San Francisco (UESF, the teacher’s union), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU, school staff), the SFUSD, and the BOE while coordinating with various other City departments to make sure that the requisite safety measures are in place to keep both the student and adult populations safe. It requires balancing “all the various needs [that]…many times are split down the middle,” Lara said.
Even the undisputed, cut-and-dried basics are difficult to fill. One of the conditions for reopening schools, for example, is that the District contracts with a private company, or companies, that can deliver and process regular COVID-19 tests, every two weeks, for roughly 10,000 teachers and staff members, and 50,000 students. The scale of coordinating and implementing this single provision is massive and would normally take about a year, but the District must figure out how to do it in mere weeks despite being understaffed and underfunded.
Mayor Breed claimed that various City departments had already provided the assistance necessary to reopen schools. Then why, asked Lara, when “the City could expand their testing capacity now to include educators and the school system…why won’t the city commit to that” instead of leaving the District to do it on their own? Given the eager nature of those backing the lawsuit, it is easy to see the logic of that question.
The same question could be applied to vaccines for teachers and staff. One of the most important reopening stipulations is that should public schools reopen while San Francisco is in the red tier, vaccinations must be made available to all educators and school staff members. But the City—not the SFUSD—is responsible for vaccine distribution, and so far, has sent only mixed messages about when teachers can receive it.
Izzy Hendry, a 4th and 5th grade teacher at Paul Revere Elementary School, described an email she received from the City concerning her and other teacher’s eligibility for the vaccine. She said “[the City is] going to open [the vaccine] up to educators on the 24th, meaning there’s vaccines. And then the next line was, we don’t have enough vaccines for you.”
Given that the city is still in the purple tier, the likeliest scenario for the earliest large-scale school reopening will be when we enter the red tier, at which point the City must ensure that enough vaccinations are available to all the teachers and staff who return to the classroom. However, according to the official City website, the vaccine is in such short supply that “you may have to wait to get a vaccine even when you are eligible,” again delaying reopening.
Many of the hurdles to reopening are logistical – time, and money wisely spent, should remove them. But the much more complex issue of socioeconomic inequality, and the destruction the pandemic wrought on families in underserved communities, is a hurdle that is not easily overcome. Hendry spoke about the numerous students and families at her school that have experienced job loss, housing instability, and the deaths of close relatives; for many parents the trauma caused by the pandemic translates into the fear of sending their kids into an environment where they could potentially contract the virus and transmit it back at home.
“Our communities have already lost more people than average in the Bay Area…So many people have lost jobs…had to consolidate households…in or out of the classroom, the pandemic stress is still there,” said Hendry. “Just from talking to people, I bet less than half my class would come back, because they’re scared of Covid.”
It is no secret that the Latinx population in San Francisco has suffered disproportionately throughout the pandemic. It is also no secret that the City and its various departments have done little more than the minimum to help alleviate the weight of the problems caused by the pandemic. The progress made by the Latinx community in fighting COVID-19 is essential but also incredibly fragile; and the potential consequences of Attorney Herrera’s lawsuit might just be enough to smash that progress.