It seems like a decade ago when the San Francisco Unified School District announced that all S.F. public schools would be closed due to the dangers of COVID-19. For many teachers, that semester became a matter of basic pass/fail as both they and their students learned how to navigate an online curriculum.

Now, one year later, those same teachers are facing the very real anxiety of returning to in-person learning, potentially without the adequate resources to protect themselves, their students, and even their families from COVID.

In any “normal” year, schools (grades K-12) must contend with the challenges of ever-tightening budgets, growing student populations, and just not enough teachers or space. Drop a pandemic into the mix and you have a perfect storm of impossible decisions to make. When and how to reopen schools was one such impossible decision—on one hand there are the students, many of whom have fallen behind as a result of disparate resources (laptops, internet access, tutors) and are suffering emotionally and mentally from the effects of quarantine; and on the other there are the teachers, who are more vulnerable to the coronavirus’ deadlier symptoms and run a greater risk of spreading the virus or even potentially losing their paychecks (or lives) if they contract it.

Frank Lara, a fifth grade teacher at Buena Vista Horace Mann in San Francisco, poses for a portrait on Jan. 26 while working from his living room work desk in his South San Francisco home. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students and teachers nationwide endure the difficulties of virtual classes. Photo: Benjamin Fanjoy

The decision to reopen schools by the SFUSD surely was a difficult one, but according to one teacher involved in negotiations to reopen, it was a decision that was mainly forced by outside pressure from various City and State departments. Accordingly, and much like prior City efforts to combat the coronavirus, the SFUSD is ignoring community voices and taking a “top-down versus bottom-up” approach, said Roberto Hernandez, the father of an SFUSD student and prominent community activist-organizer. While several non-profits organizations and the teacher’s union welcomed parental involvement and ideas, to District officials it is if “we don’t exist…[an] invisible community.”

Hernandez’s concerns are mainly for the students who have been academically “left behind.” Why? The SFUSD provided most of the district’s students with laptops so they could attend online classes; they also recruited multiple nonprofits to set up community hubs for approximately 3,000 students who needed extra help with schoolwork, or simply a routine to remain focused.

But reality cannot live on good intentions alone—not only did a number of the machines distributed by the District not function properly, it also is not uncommon for students in underserved communities to not have access to a reliable internet connection, rendering the laptops useless.

Moreover, the number of community hubs have not reached the promised amount, a circumstance that is perhaps more distressing than spotty internet or an unreliable computer. Frank Lara, a fifth-grade teacher at Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 school and high-ranking union member, recalled a student who would rarely log in to class or complete any homework; but when he was placed at one of the hubs, Lara said the student’s “transformation [was] radical. And this is at a minimum, providing just a space, internet, some quiet consistency.”

Lara said the student’s “transformation [was] radical. And this is at a minimum, providing just a space, internet, some quiet consistency.”

Lara’s testimony would seem to make a case for getting kids back in the classroom, but when one compares how a community hub functions to how a classroom would operate under COVID protocol, the contrasts are stark. Aside from the usual mask wearing, hand washing, and surface disinfecting, there are highly specific and strict guidelines that direct everything from how many kids are allowed in a hallway at once, to what teachers must ask every student each morning before they enter the school building, to where students should put their masks when eating lunch. While such level of detail does provide a degree of comfort, it also raises questions: who and how will all the extra accommodations and supplies be paid for? How can upwards of thirty students in small classrooms possibly maintain six feet between them? How can teachers best help students who are academically behind without extra staff?

It is the lack of answers to questions like these that have teachers apprehensive about returning to the classroom. Circumstances are further convoluted by the fact that SFUSD officials and teachers are on different pages—teachers and their union are focused on how to improve distance learning rather than jumping right into the District’s favored complex hybrid-learning model. “I think educators understand the severity of the situation,” Lara said. “But the issue is you can’t move quickly.”

Lara went on to talk about students who are not presently in California. “We have students who are still out of the country, out of the state…how do we keep a routine? And they’re learning…there’s a lot of…innovative stuff happening. But if you get pulled into this discussion of what in-person [learning] is going to look like, you’re suddenly going to have to rethink and disrupt that [online] transition, and we’re honestly not prepared for that.”

Neither, apparently, was the District prepared to meet teachers even halfway in negotiations concerning reopening. Discussions halted in December when District officials pushed for schools to reopen despite county COVID-risk levels being at their highest (the “purple” tier). According to Lara, teachers were open to being flexible, but not reckless. “We were willing to listen and the district was not…[it] killed the whole conversation.”

Is there anything that could help schools and teachers and students to return properly to in-person learning? “Yes,” said Lara. “It comes down to money, and they have the money, [they] just choose to spend it, always, in the wrong places.”