UPDATE: Late night on Jan. 13, SFUSD and the Unions representing educators of SFUSD reached an agreement to guarantee high quality masks for all students and school workers; weekly testing at all District sites, including every SFUSD school, and 10 days of supplemental paid sick leave.

The same day San Francisco schools welcomed their students back from winter break on Jan. 3, the city reported 1,894 new cases of COVID-19, the highest number of new cases recorded in a single day since the start of the pandemic.

As the Omicron variant took root late last year, spreading and sending COVID-19 cases soaring across the country, already depleted educators in San Francisco not only braced for the impact this latest surge would have in their classrooms, but were desperate for answers as to why their schools were woefully ill-equipped with testing kits and high-quality masks. Seemingly basic items they feel would help maintain an adequate safe learning environment for students and themselves. 

“Imagine trying to do a project when half of your group is home,” said Hector Pineda, a seventh- grade Social Studies teacher at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Academic Middle School, whose classroom dwindled to as little as six students the week they returned from winter break. 

“A lot of teachers have children, babies who are unvaccinated. It’s a strange sensation having to come to work and not know if they can come home to their own children. And it’s kind of unfortunate that we’ve gotten to this point.”

Frustrations over, what educators are calling, a lack of support by the San Francisco Unified School District have reached a boiling point. The union, United Educators of San Francisco, claims the district opted out of a state program—in exchange for $1.3 million—that would’ve provided test kits and masks. 

In an email response to El Tecolote, the district said that in March 2021, they entered into a contract with Color—a health tech company providing a high volume COVID-19 testing. 

“Since that time, SFUSD has spent upwards of $7 million on COVID testing and is preparing to amend the contract by $5.8 million, to a total of $12.8 million, to support ongoing testing for the remainder of this year,” read the email. “We received a $1.2M grant from CDPH to help cover the testing costs. The State had an antigen test kit pilot program which SFUSD applied for but we were told there were not enough test kits available for the request we made.”

And with stalled negotiations between the UESF and SFUSD over providing high quality masks (N95, KN95, KN94) for all school staff and students—the district has currently distributed high-quality masks to classroom teachers only—including regular weekly testing and an extension for COVID sick leave, some educators participated in a district wide “sickout” on Jan. 6. A rally was planned for that day in front of the school district offices at 555 Franklin St. And while the rally drew few, educators have made their voice heard.  

“I don’t want to pretend to know how the funding and everything works behind the scenes. But we’re a pretty big district. And I think this is pretty predictable. COVID has been around for a while and we knew that winter break was coming,” said Katrina Sicairos, who teaches ninth- grade Health at Raoul Wallenberg Traditional High School. For Sicairos, the decision to participate in the “sickout” wasn’t one she took lightly. 

“I have to work. I have to support myself in San Francisco. I have to support my child. I also just care about my students and their families, the communities. I care about the work that I do and the subject that I teach. And I think that education is important. So I show up to work, because I care,” she said. “And I think there’s a lot of pressure around, ‘If you call in sick, you don’t care.’ And there’s a lot of trouble that a person has to go through in order to plan for a sub day. A lot of people before the pandemic would work through colds or other illnesses, because maybe we didn’t have those sick days. Now that I have a child, I also have to plan some of those sick days if my child is sick or has an appointment. So it’s difficult. There’s a lot of pressure around showing up and being there. There’s push and pull in a lot of directions as a teacher.”

The entire fall 2021 semester, SFUSD reported a total of 647 COVID cases between students and staff. It took less than two weeks into the new year to surpass the total number of COVID cases last fall. So far, 879 COVID cases have been reported by the district, with 688 of those being students. 

Andrew Casteel, whose five-year-old child Francis attends Dolores Huerta Elementary School, was one of the few who attended the rally on Jan. 6.

“The teachers and the school staff at his school are amazing. They go above and beyond and they’ve done a really great job of keeping him safe, but without the support the district has promised,” Casteel said, a former teacher in the Sequoia Union High School District. 

“As a parent, I have no problem with my teachers or my staff at my immediate school, but I am as angry as they are that the district isn’t providing the things they promised.”

Andrew Casteel and his five-year-old child Francis attend the “sickout” rally at 555 Franklin St. on Jan. 6, 2022, showing their solidarity with educators demanding PPE from SFUSD. Photo: Alexis Terrazas

A group of Latino students from the public charter school Leadership High School also attended the rally. While their school isn’t part of SFUSD, they heard of the “sickout” from fellow teachers and wanted to show their solidarity. 

“I support them, because I feel it takes a lot to just say, ‘I’m not going to go there for a day.’ There has to be a reason behind that. And a lot of the demands that they’re asking for is to help us and to help our families,” said Susana Cardenas, a freshman at Leadership. 

“So they’re not just putting themselves out there, they’re putting us first. So it may look like they are not because they didn’t go to school today, but they are putting us first.”

Cardenas was just a middle schooler at James Middle School. Remote learning wasn’t for her. She failed most of her classes, and even feared not making it to high school. 

“I would have probably did way better in school if I had just stayed in school, but I would not want to risk my grandparents getting sick or like any of my family members,” said Cardenas, who lives with her grandparents. 

“I would convince my mom to keep me virtual, even if it was risking me staying back a grade. I would do anything to not get them sick.”

This scenario for primarily Black and Brown living in multigenerational households is one that Pineda knows all too well. At MLK, his students come from the Mission, Hunters Point and Bayview. 

“A lot of our students live in multigenerational homes, and if they contract something here, and take that home, that’s a whole other powder keg ready to explode,” Pineda said. 

The day Pineda spoke with El Tecolote on Jan. 7, eight students were in his class after starting the week with 20. And after going at least two months last semester without receiving any PPE from the district—Pineda supplied his students with masks, hand sanitizer and sanitation wipes all out of pocket—the high quality KN95 masks finally arrived at MLK on Jan. 10. But only for classroom teachers, and not all staff and students like many educators are demanding. And testing is only available on Mondays at MLK.

All of this, including facing proposed budget cuts for the last five years, the District Attorney’s lawsuit against the Board of Education and SFUSD, the current effort to recall the three people of color serving on the board of education, and the overall villainization of educators during the pandemic, has been draining for Pineda.

“It’s exhausting. And imagine us now.  At this point. We want to keep good educators at school. But yet we don’t provide any motivational value to provide these educators to stay here. We’re really forcing teachers into becoming martyrs. And that is not all what teachers should be. We’re professionals,” said Pineda, who as a Latinx educator and immigrant, empathizes with parents who have to wait hours in line and take time off of work to have their children vaccinated and tested. 

“It’s really putting a thumb into the wound of black and brown families who have been struggling for years and decades at SFUSD.”

“To say that it’s us, to say that we’re the ones that are calling out and doing sickouts as if though we have no regard to the students safety, this is all about student safety,” Pineda said. 

“We care about our students being in our classrooms, but we care about them most being in here safely. Can they be here safely enough to learn? If they can’t feel safe, how are we expected to teach them?”