Instead, the SFUSD ceded the field to opportunists and charlatans.
Well, it happened.
You can’t keep the windows and doors closed in a group setting because of a pandemic and you can’t keep them open because of a series of wildfires.
You can’t send your kids to school because of obvious health concerns, but you can send them to a “learning camp” or “learning hub” with a dozen or more kids in the room staffed by a non-unionized non-teacher — which, from a health perspective, doesn’t make the most sense.
And, yes, the doors and windows are shut.
Right now, the luckiest among us are working from home — but maybe “working” is pushing it at times. If you have kids, there’s probably a small person seated at a small desk not far from your own and grappling with technological struggles eerily and painfully reminiscent of those your own parents are grappling with.
This is not a recipe for productivity. And it’s just a matter of time before every child in that kindergarten class overhears a profane off-the-record discussion with a city official.
That’s my problem, but let’s be real here: The parents and workers who’ll suffer disproportionately are women. More is always expected of women, and they give more. The pandemic has only exacerbated and laid bare so many of society’s pre-existing conditions.
A “solution” that involves working parents (read: moms) being forced to supervise their remote-learning kids — if they have the luxury of working from home — is fighting a losing battle with the dictionary. Parents (read: moms) need to earn a living. So it’s not surprising that they would proactively look for solutions.
What is surprising is how little help they’re getting from public institutions.
By now, even if you’ve made every attempt to strenuously avoid it, you’ve probably come in contact with information about so-called “pandemic pods.”
Now, “pod” is just the Centers for Disease Control’s preferred nomenclature for a small group. This just implies a handful of students in an educational setting; it’s not an inherently politically loaded term.
But it has come to be.
You’ve read the newspaper stories and op-eds and you may even have perused the jaw-dropping San Francisco-spawned Facebook group that has swelled to more than 40,000 members. The connotation “pandemic pod” now conjures up is of privileged, predominately white parents essentially re-creating schools in their gardens or garages and poaching teachers — perhaps from public school systems — in a perfect amalgamation of elitism and disaster capitalism.
Well, that’s one way of doing things. But it’s not the only way. And that’s not what Gail Cornwall wanted.
Cornwall is a lawyer, a journalist and a mother of three kids at San Francisco’s Rooftop School — a public K-8 in the San Francisco Unified School District. Rather than weaken the public school system while reinforcing societal inequity, Cornwall and other parents reached out to get the school involved. And her request was reciprocated.
Rooftop staffers spent scores of hours dividing up the student body into small cohorts on an equitable basis. Right now, the “pods” are meeting on their own time, largely on Zoom, with some of them planning for physically distanced outdoor gatherings — scootering in the park and whatnot.
But as San Francisco turns the tide on this pandemic, perhaps students could meet for instruction out-of-doors (smoke permitting) or ramp up toward school as we knew it.
In short, this is a start, and a promising one. The nascent program, and its efforts to actually minister to parents’ needs in a helpful and equitable way within the existing system, was reported on in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. Observers both within SFUSD and without were hopeful — and encouraging.
And yet, a multitude of sources have confirmed that SFUSD has abruptly cut ties with this program.
Officials at Rooftop — and, subsequently, every city public school — have been instructed to not proactively participate in parents’ attempts to form social groups or pandemic pods.
That leaves parents on their own, unable to consult with educational professionals regarding matters of education. Cornwall confirms that, during the predictable churn of new students arriving at school in the opening week, she and other parents had to sort the kids into cohorts, not educational professionals.
“Parents have had to try to weigh equity concerns,” she says. “Which we are much less equipped to do.”
That’s a problem. It’s exactly the scenario the Rooftop parents and staff were trying to avoid.
Well, it happened. But why?
Certainly the district can rattle off any number of health and safety issues regarding students, parents, and teachers potentially commingling in person — which, of course, boil down to liability concerns.
But there are currently no pending plans for in-person instruction. So, in the end, this appears to be a labor issue.
“SFUSD has an MOU [memorandum of understanding] with the teachers’ union for distance learning,” reads a statement sent to me from the district. “Neither the Collective Bargaining Agreement nor the Distance Learning MOU address the creation of learning pods. Any work asked of teachers in this regard would need to be negotiated.”
Susan Solomon, the president of the United Educators of San Francisco, confirmed that her union threatened to file an unfair labor practices claim if teachers at Rooftop or elsewhere were expected to assist with pods. A recent meeting held at Rooftop — 24 teachers purportedly attended — was voluntary. But Solomon notes that this is still problematic; younger probationary teachers are incentivized to attend regardless.
Solomon tells me, however, that she’s not reflexively against the district cooperating with parents on this issue. It just needs to be negotiated.
But SFUSD, facing pushback from the union and contemplating liability issues, didn’t take that tack. It didn’t question the union’s claim or work toward a mutually approved solution: Rather, it rapidly cut ties with the program with all the subtlety of college-town cops busting up a student party.
Solomon said she, too, is concerned that disaffected San Francisco parents may now turn to grifters and opportunists who either don’t care about undermining public schools — or see that as a boon.
That’s a concern now. And it figures to be a concern in November, when we vote.
“As a school district, we can’t take the position that parents just have to figure it out,” said Matt Alexander, a former 20-year San Francisco Unified teacher and principal now running for school board. “Rooftop’s model was really promising. But the district shut down a lot of the conversations. They came in and said ‘stop, you cannot do that.’”
The district, Alexander continues, has lawyers on hand who should help navigate these issues — not just devise excuses to abandon them.
“What frustrates me so much when I see the situation at Rooftop is it reminds me of how our district too often tries to manage things top-down,” he continues. “Instead of seeing this promising model and saying ‘we’re going to help this school and support it and figure it out,’ they kind of just shut this thing down.”
How unfortunate. We all have our windows and doors shut out of necessity. But, in the case of SFUSD, that doesn’t mean people won’t still walk away.
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