books for distance learning
Pie de foto: estudiante de sexto grado Rosa Jaramillo mirando los libros mientras recoge los insumos de la Escuela Media Everett. Foto de Juan Carlos Lara. Sixth-grader Rosa Jaramillo looks at books while picking up supplies from Everett Middle School. Photo by Juan Carlos Lara.

Juana Rodriguez and her youngest child, Rosa, visited Everett Middle School for the first time on Tuesday, the second day of school for San Francisco United School District  students.  

Rather than an exciting tour of Rosa’s new stomping grounds followed by an emotional farewell, the two went on a rather unceremonious walk through the schoolyard to claim a loaner iPad and some school supplies for the new sixth-grader. Rosa stopped at a cart full of books that the school’s librarian has brought out to give away to students. She asked if there were any books in Spanish. The librarian said no. 

“She was nervous as we walked up. We’re all nervous for this start, honestly. I hope it goes well,” Rodriguez said. 

While Rodriguez is hoping for the best, she is also prepared for the worst. 

And, she should be. Crowded spaces, failing attention spans and inadequate technology all conspire to make the school year particularly difficult for the district’s estimated 28,500 socioeconomically disadvantaged students including some 2,000 unhoused. Already existing disparities, parents and teachers fear, will only increase. And those disparities are stark:  Only 28.4 percent of Black high school students and 37.9 percent of Latinx students were prepared for college or a career, compared to the 70.7 percent of white students who were prepared, according to the district’s dashboard.   

Most SFUSD students will start school later in the day and end earlier.  Much of their so-called school day may not involve direct interaction with a teacher.

On a districtwide level, teachers are only obligated to provide a minimum of two hours of synchronous teaching, according to a SFUSD distance learning guide.

Synchronous learning means students are engaging with teachers in realtime, usually through a video meeting like Zoom, or a phone call. Asynchronous learning means students are not directly interacting with their teachers or classmates. 

“This may be through a prerecorded video, web-based lessons, or a series of self paced assignments,” states the learning guide. 

When schools first transitioned to distance learning in March, Rodriguez adapted. She did what many parents do when spread thin, relied more on her oldest. The 18-year-old, then in his last semester of high school, helped his two younger siblings get into Zoom sessions, taught them how to turn in assignments, and made himself available for all of their online questions while also dealing with his own final semester through distance learning. 

If Rodriguez was called to work, she left one child with her oldest at home and took the other with her. That way both youngsters were being looked after and kept apart so they wouldn’t distract each other. 

Last week, however, her oldest moved to North Carolina to start college.

Now, when Rodriguez is called in to work, she must leave one of her children at home alone and simply hope they focus on school work. Even when she is home, Rodriguez has trouble verifying that her kids are on task. 

“I don’t know much about computers, so I don’t know whether they’re actually doing their work or if they’re just messing around.”  Rodriguez said. 

This uncertainty is also felt on the other side of the screen, according to Luis Vidalon-Suzuki, a second-year math teacher at John O’Connell High School. 

“With online learning, it’s hard to tell if students are paying attention or if they even understand the material,” Vidalon-Suzuki said. 

The new teacher says he often relies on body language to identify students who are struggling with the course work, but that becomes much more difficult when he can only see from the computer’s perspective. It also becomes very easy, he says, for students to simply open another tab and goof off. Their eyes are still facing the screen, so it’s nearly impossible to tell. 

This, of course, assumes that students can even access the technology necessary to get into distance learning classes, such as laptops with cameras and reliable internet access.

Last week, almost 10,000 students picked up devices loaned out by SFUSD, and 1,800 picked up internet hotspots, according to SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick. 

Even with the necessary tools for distance learning, some students may not be in the optimal environment for learning. The district’s distance learning guide encourages parents to “Make a list of the different tasks (reading, writing, laptop, etc) then help your child pick two good places for each. Find a space that is well-lit and quiet.” 

Many parents do not have enough space in their homes for their students to have their own space, much less two. 

Marta Flores is a mother of 4. Her eldest daughter is in college and then she has students in second, sixth and 11th grades.  

Flores usually sits with her youngest in the dining room, with her two middle children attending class in the room they share. Luckily, the oldest moved out for college, otherwise she says it would be much harder for them to share the space. 

And school is only one of Flores’s concerns. 

On the day she spoke with Mission Local, she was at Cesar Chavez Elementary School waiting in a line that stretched from the middle of Folsom Street to 22nd Street. 

The SFUSD distance learning guide promises “SFUSD students can access 5 days’ worth of meals (including breakfast, lunch, supper, fresh fruits and vegetables, & milk).” 

Unfortunately, Flores says, the food isn’t enough. Flores goes to Cesar Chavez Elementary every week to pick up three food bags, one for each of her children currently enrolled in SFUSD. 

She says if her kids relied on the food given, it would only last two or three days. In total, Flores estimates that she only saves herself $15 a week for all three bags. 

Melissa Daar Carvajal, president of the Mission High School PTSA, said that even with educators, parents and students doing their best, virtual classrooms are no comparison to the real thing. 

“Everybody wants a really good school system but we understand that without a significant funding boost, it’s unrealistic to expect everything to slip into place,” Carvajal said. 

Carvajal, whose twin sons are juniors at Mission High School, also acknowledged that while this drastic change in schooling seems to be going well from her perspective, that may not be the case for those with less space at home, or those with younger students that are unfamiliar with much of the new technology, and for those who do not have the luxury of working from home. 

“The people who usually have the most challenges will continue to have the most challenges, the people usually with the least challenges will continue to have the least challenges,” Carvajal said. 

And, in that sense, some things have not changed for this school year.

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Juan Carlos Lara covers business and development in the Mission. Juan Carlos, a San Francisco State alum, is as much a photographer as he is a writer and previously worked as the campus news editor at Golden Gate Xpress, SF State’s student paper.

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  1. As a teacher librarian for SFUSD I felt that the librarian in the article was misrepresented. I also distributed books to students last week. Our schools all received 100s of books to go to classroom libraries as part of a reading program. Many schools decided instead of leaving books in boxes, we need to get physical books into the hands of the students and that is what we did. These were not library books but classroom books. As a mother of SFUSD children, I relate to the pressure and anxiety of the parents in the story. I also appreciated the librarian at Everett getting books into my kids hands and not computers. If you go into the libraries at SFUSD you will see multi-language collections that represent a vast array of experiences, identities, ethnicities and stories. Librarians spend the year collaborating and doing research to use our tax payer dollars well.

    While I am glad this story came out because it represents well what many of our families are going through, I felt let down it needed to disparage one of our best to set the tone. Instead the real problem of a bloated administration was not addressed. San Francisco Unified spends more on central office costs than any other large school urban school district in California. We have many administrators trying to show their relevance, wanting to take credit for the big idea and not doing the work for the big idea, and making more work to hold educators accountable than actual working for students and families.

  2. I support the district’s decision not to reopen. It isn’t safe for our teachers, our children or our families. The gaps will increase as the wealthy create “pandemic pods” which will offer extras those without resources can’t afford. It doesn’t make any sense to me why some on the school board are coming out against the city created learning hubs that was put in place to offer our youngest learners support systems. This seems to be one of the few mitigations to what will be a massive task in closing gaps once schools resume in person. The school board has been a problem for years in their inability to do anything but hear themselves talk. Moving the needle on opportunity gaps is not an easy task and it requires serious thoughtful conversations not grandstanding which seems to be the only thing this board is capable of doing. The board meetings are archived and from March to the present board members have been dismissive on all fronts. There was the “all As” proposal which the Superintendent immediately flagged as a no go because UCs wouldn’t accept it, he already had the response from UC. What followed was a waste of time debates over why college matters, why should UC get to tell us what to do. The board then forced the hapless Superintendent to go back and ask again. It took a Washington Post article to force the board’s hand to approve a emergency credit/no credit solution. This wasted a month of the staff’s time. As has been reported in various news the Superintendent then asked for a consultant to help plan for the fall, the board instead of setting parameters of who would be okay waited until the last minute to veto this proposal because of charter affiliations of the consulting group. Another waste of time. The budget meetings were very similar. Board members who do not understand how budgets work were asking basic questions and sending the staff scurrying back and forth because they didn’t want to put in some effort on their own. I have no idea why the Superintendent stays in an atmosphere where he is constantly undermined. In person school was always going to be impossible however the poor planning could have been avoided with a more responsible BoE.

  3. So the author compares blacks & latins to whites , but excludes the largest group Asians , clearly a false narative is being pushed.
    As for feeding the family , the schools are not setup to feed her and the kids 3 meals 7 days a week , has she hit up the San Francisco Food Bank , and or applied for Calfresh or is she wealthy , and does not qualify ?

    1. Yes, Asian kids actually out-perform white kids but that gets glossed over by those with an agenda.

      The premise is that if you are not white then you are disadvantaged. And the stats for Asians dispute that narrative, so they are just ignored.