The technologist Bruce Schneier has a well-worn saying to explain misbegotten, performative attempts at security: Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, we must do it.
Well, the San Francisco Unified School District attempted to do something earlier this month.
School principals and assistant principals — “site administrators” in school jargon — were officially informed, via an item buried in a weekly newsletter emailed at 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 6, that they would be mandated to begin working once more from their cavernous, empty schools, starting this month.
It seems hard to believe, but it’s true: Squirreling away this momentous and consequential announcement among many items in a weekly e-newsletter was actually among the smoother steps in this process.
Days earlier, during a virtual meeting, scores of principals and assistant principals were told by their union leadership that this move was coming. The stated rationale, conveyed from the district, was that they needed to re-learn how to get in the routine of showering and getting dressed every morning.
“That was extraordinarily offensive,” recalls one assistant principal. “People were un-mic-ing and just yelling.”
This was said — out loud — at a meeting attended by scores, if not hundreds, of people. Your humble narrator communicated with some two dozen principals and assistant principals for this story, in addition to district and union representatives. Every statement made at these large meetings was corroborated by multiple attendees.
In fact, there’d be plenty of opportunities for taking offense. Principals and assistant principals at a virtual meeting asked what they should do if parents tried to buttonhole them while they were working at school sites. Their union leadership told them that they could simply park their cars far from the school, so as to remain incognito (Perhaps a trench coat and large hat might be wise, too, but this was not mentioned).
Principals or assistant principals who asked what they should do for childcare were told to bring their tots along to the empty schools.
No sizable city in North America has a lower per-capita population of children than San Francisco. And no city in California has a higher percentage of its children in private schools.
But even those of you without public school students in the next room knocking things over while doing a Zoom PE class have probably heard about the increasingly fraught political finger-pointing between the mayor, Board of Supervisors, Board of Education, teachers’ union, and district itself regarding the sclerotic progress of even quantifying what would be required to partially re-open the schools.
At this point, you may be wondering how, absent a greater plan, it helps advance any goal to yank principals out of their homes — where many tell me they’re already working long hours, including evenings and weekends — and make them commute daily to do the same work at an abandoned, unheated school where the trash cans aren’t emptied but once every few weeks. And bring their kids along.
They’re wondering, too.
“As a site leader, as a manager of people, I never issue a directive without a rationale,” said a school principal. “We are being issued a directive without a rationale.”
Said another, “I have no quibble if the district tells me to go in, and here’s a checklist of things to prepare for this site, and kids are coming back on this day, and here’s how you’ll stay safe. But that has not occurred. So why should I go back — with my kids in tow?”
The two-dozen-odd principals and assistant principals I communicated with, in fact, informed me they’re already showing up one to five times a week at their school sites. They’re distributing equipment, books or food, receiving massive deliveries, and even telling homeless people who’ve taken up residence on derelict campuses to relocate.
Bruce Schneier invented a term anyone who’s taken her shoes off at the airport or surrendered a nail file at a public building may be familiar with: security theater. And, says one principal with a wan laugh, forcing her to do the job she’s already doing while sitting in an empty school is “covid theater.”
Putting principals and assistant principals back on site creates, at least, the illusion of progress. But, absent other developments, it really is only an illusion — and certainly not, in itself, a sequential step on a coherent path.
District spokeswoman Laura Dudnick told Mission Local that principals and assistant principals “are integral to site-level planning processes related to a return to in-person learning. A part of preparing to eventually welcome back staff and students is having site leaders present and back in the building.”
But, again, how that works when principals and assistant principals are shunted back on site absent a larger plan was left unsaid. And the principals and assistant principals have noticed this.
“It’s like re-opening bingo,” says one. “But, as far as the timeline, it doesn’t help reopen the schools. Not if there’s no plan.”
Maybe you did bad things in school. Maybe you’ve seen principals and assistant principals get mad.
You haven’t seen them as mad as this.
On top of the Nov. 6 dictum to return to empty schools, a Nov. 10 Chronicle article about the district’s attempts to re-open by late January included the following passage:
For the past few months, principals have been working from home, while top district administrators, including the superintendent, have had to take turns sitting at school sites to oversee access for teachers who requested use of classrooms for distance learning.
The return of principals, who are represented by the United Administrators of San Francisco, would presumably free up the superintendent and his top administrators to spend more time on reopening plans.
“It’s true that centralized district administrators have been serving as site captains in order to have a manager on each campus where teachers are coming in to access a remote teaching work space,” Dudnick told Mission Local.
“This involves some attention from administrators such as when someone comes to work in-person for the first time or maintenance people need access to something. With the exception of a few interruptions, the site captains are doing their primary district work from the school building where they are stationed.”
The implication that “top administrators” have been forced to shoulder the load because feckless principals and assistant principals can’t be bothered to shower and show up to work evoked a visceral response. Far from being a burden pulling “top administrators” from their vital work, principals described “site captain” duty as largely consisting of “sitting at the front door and greeting people.”
The district declined to answer our question regarding what school superintendent Dr. Vincent Matthews was assigned to.
If one believes that Matthews and his “top administrators” really have been unable to adequately craft reopening plans because they were instead forced to babysit teachers on-site, it forces the question of just how the hell anyone thought this was a good idea and a proper allocation of resources.
“The idea that top-level leaders are out at the schools doing the heavy lifting and are not able to focus on re-opening while the rest of us are at home twiddling our thumbs infuriated hundreds of administrators,” said an assistant principal. “And I am one of them.”
Unlike teachers, principals and assistant principals work on one- or three-year contracts. As such, they are not inclined to overtly protest the district’s actions, and several told me that even their union warned them to pick their battles when agitating — especially if they are in their contract’s final year.
But they are angry, and there’s documentable proof of that. Last week, some 125 administrators filled out an online poll. Regarding the statement “It is not logical for me to work in an empty building with no teachers or students,” 93 percent agreed.
Regarding the statement “I believe site administrators are being disrespected yet again and being excluded from any decisions that directly impact us,” 98 percent agreed.
And regarding the statement “I am concerned that site administrators are being directed to return to sites when there is no concrete plan for reopening schools,” 99 percent agreed.
Or, as one principal put it more succinctly in an online forum: “This is some bullshit.”
Those are some hard numbers to ignore. Following that poll, and following pushback from the United Administrators union — and, following even more intense pushback by a number of irate principals organizing independently of the union — the brakes have been applied to the timeline of putting principals and assistant principals back into abandoned schools by month’s end.
The union and district representatives met on Friday. Some manner of Memorandum of Understanding will likely need to be cemented before principals and assistant principals deign to set foot in the schools again, but an agreement hasn’t been finalized yet.
The district, meanwhile, clearly has no leverage over its thousands of teachers and their powerful union. (And, separate from whatever you think about reopening schools or not reopening schools, the teachers union is doing what unions are supposed to do — advocating for the well-being of its members.)
So, the 300-odd principals and assistant principals are being deployed to provide some leverage.
During a Thursday morning virtual meeting with more than 100 principals and assistant principals, Superintendent Matthews did nothing to diminish this impression when he referred to them as the district’s “leverage pin” moving toward re-opening.
The principals and assistant principals didn’t miss that message — which would be hard to do, considering the overt use of the word “leverage.”
“My presence at my site does not move us one step closer to actually reopening,” wrote one. “But it provides a talking point. ‘Look, administrators are in their offices.’ This is ridiculous.”
Perhaps. But it is something.