Mural at Cesar Chavez Elementary. Photo by Clara-Sophia Daly

This story has been corrected.

Despite repeated promises from public health officials that reopening schools would be safe, some Mission parents and educators are unsure that such guidelines are sound, or could be adequately implemented.

Others say it is time, and can be done safely. 

“Playing and being with other kids has become a privilege,” said Dheyanira Calahorrano, referring to the nearly 16,000 students in the city’s private schools who have been able to attend full- or part-time in-person classes. Calahorrano is a health worker at San Francisco General Hospital whose son attends Everett Middle School. 

What’s clear is that reopening is now back on the horizon. On Feb. 7, the union and school district reached a tentative agreement to reopen if the city reaches the red tier and on-site school staff are vaccinated. If the city reaches the orange tier, staff would return without requiring vaccinations. 

Though the Board of Education was set to vote on the measure Tuesday, the board delayed the vote to discuss a legal issue related to renaming 44 schools.

To break up the isolation of online school, Calahorrano has her son attending online school from Dolores Park with a group of other Latino families from the Mission. This at least allows him to socialize with the other children.

She and her group aren’t alone in wanting to go back: Before the winter surge, she collected signatures from 70 families in the Mission who want schools to reopen.

The school district and Department of Public Health declined to comment on concerns about reopening. Board of Education President Gabriela López did not respond to a request for an interview.

The parents and teachers who are hesitant to reopen said basing reopening on citywide measures of covid prevalence could be a problem for the Mission, which is one of the city’s hardest-hit districts.

Yajaira Garcia, a parent of a first-grader at Buena Vista Horace Mann, said she doesn’t think the city is taking into account the Mission’s higher case rates. If that were the case, she asks, why would they propose reopening schools across the city at the same time?

Tara Ramos, who teaches at Sanchez Elementary School, said she’s concerned that higher rates of covid in the Mission could create even more chaos for families if schools reopen and are forced to shut down again. She wonders what would happen if the Mission stayed in the purple tier while the citywide average dropped to red or orange.

“Does it make sense to reopen in a neighborhood where community transmission is higher, where people are not as protected, where people aren’t able to shelter in place?” she asked. “That conversation has not been had publicly.”

Several parents and teachers also said that their students are doing well with online learning and, in some cases, doing better than they would have in person. This conflicts with school district data that found the pandemic has widened the learning gap between students who are wealthy and white versus those who are low-income or students of color. But at least some low-come students of color have had a more positive experience, and for nearly everyone the issue of reopening schools comes down to each person’s personal experience. 

“It is not all suffering,” Ramos said. “There is creativity, there is learning and there is joy in so many classrooms.”

Yessica Medina holds the school responsible for the bullying of her disabled son and says that he’s doing better online.

She’s been able to work with teachers at Buena Vista Horace Mann to send along lesson materials or papers so that she can help her son learn.

“Every therapist says, ‘Oh wow, Angel is now able to do that. Why wasn’t he able to do that before?’” she said. “And I respond, it’s because I’m there, and I can help him.”

Claudia DeLarios Morán, the principal of Buena Vista Horace Mann, said she could not “discuss incidents related to individual students. I am very sorry that I am not at liberty to address the details of your question.” 

She added, “That said, I can assure you that at Buena Vista Horace Mann we aim to build a supportive and inclusive school environment in the classroom and school community. 

“When bullying does occur, we take an approach to intervene and educate, which aims to do more than just punish. As educators, our goal is to change the behaviors of those who bully and offer opportunities for the victim to express how they’ve been harmed. When appropriate, formal discipline may be issued.”

Despite concerns about the Mission’s higher Covid rates, Dr. Jeanne Noble, director of the Covid-19 response for the UCSF Emergency Department, said it is safe to reopen now, provided that students wear masks, maintain distance and wash their hands. Vaccination is not necessary for teachers or students to return, she said.

She cited a Duke University study of 100,000 students and educators in North Carolina that found only 32 cases of covid transmission across four months where cases in the state were four times higher than what would place a California county in the state’s purple tier. And of those 32 cases, the study found no transmissions from student to teacher, with most cases coming from younger students and students with special needs who were not masked.

“The consensus is that community prevalence should not dictate when schools open because in the presence of masking and physical distancing, you can bring school transmission down to or very close to zero,” she said, adding that students may be even safer in schools than at home.

Calahorrano, the health worker facilitating outdoor classes, said lack of confidence in a safe reopening is compounded by the lack of information in Spanish about ways to safely reopen. She said she knows of monolingual Spanish-speaking parents who receive most of their information from teachers, many of whom are not ready to go back.

And for some, their past experience with a school makes them doubt the ability of administrators to enforce the reopening guidelines. 

“We have seen things in our school buildings where things go unaddressed,” Ramos said. “We have rodent problems, or we have mold problems, or we need certain supplies or whatever. There is some mistrust among teachers that the district will follow through with the precautions they say they’re going to take.”

Noble, the public health expert from UCSF, said she understood the concerns — “It can feel really scary to go into a classroom thinking statistically that at least one of your students likely has Covid,” she said — but that luckily, teachers can enforce most of the Covid precautions without the help of the district.

“It’s right on the surface if your classroom is not meeting the standards,” she said. “If a student comes in without a mask, that student should be immediately asked to leave or be masked. Distancing is the same thing; you can put tape on the floor and space out the desks.”

But she acknowledged the conflicting signals that parents have gotten. The view of whether to open school has changed dramatically from a year ago, when health officials assumed that children would be drivers of transmission. Now they know that is not the case, but schools remain closed and that too sends its own message. 

“But how do we dig ourselves out of this hole?” she asked. “As the weeks and months go by, people become more and more fearful. It almost gets into people’s psyche that schools must be dangerous if they’ve been closed for so long.”

At the end of the day, for a lot of Mission families, the decision to return will not be an easy one.

Karla Guerrero, a reading teacher at Paul Revere who has a child attending Dolores Huerta, said she’s excited for many parts of reopening, like her child getting to meet her classmates, leave the apartment on a regular basis and spend time with her friends that she sees on Zoom. 

But at the same time, she’s worried about her safety. She’s a Pacific Islander, her husband is Mexican and they know entire households who have gotten sick.

“It would be so easy to pick one side and say, ‘Nope, I don’t care, get them into school right away,’” she said. “It would be so easy to say ‘No, keep the schools closed until all things are safe.’ But I don’t have that luxury. I am a parent, I am an educator and I have to sit with that discomfort every single day.”

This article was re-edited on Friday, Feb 19. It was an editor’s error to open this article with an alleged incident at Buena Vista Horace Mann that could not be fully explored.

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  1. Vaccines for teachers now is great. But what about vaccines for the families of students that will be exposed to the virus? Black and brown families? North Carolina and the peninsula are very different places, the science cannot be comprehensive.

  2. I appreciate that SFUSD children whose parents are able to completely support them at home might be having positive experiences with distance learning, but this is not often the case for children whose parents are working full time! I would also like to remind families that if they don’t think schools are safe, they may continue distance learning. Every family should have a choice that works for their family.

  3. Vaccines for teachers now. If we can accomplish that much then maybe those of us in neglected neighborhood schools will have faith in the system.

  4. I’ve seen more coverage of parents who want schools opened than those who do not…yet, Orinda opened last week and 70% of students did not show up in person (similar low turnout at Huntington High in SoCal)

    1. Yeah, but Orinda probably has competent principals. Here in SFUSD most of the principals aren’t good at school management even without a pandemic. Very few SFUSD principals actually do the day-to-day work that needs to be done to organize a school. Most of our principals spend their time off schmoooozing with politicians and other ilk at Central Office. You aren’t going to find many SFUSD principals who have the skills, ability or desire to actually do what needs to be done to keeps schools safe during COVID. I would never trust the current SFUSD leadership with actually managing the behavior of a schools.

  5. If this is just based on Science we have sufficient data now that proves it’s safe to open schools for K-8
    Making 100% of Teachers , and or Parents feel safe will never happen there will always be a reason.
    Schools should reopen ASAP

  6. Thank you for writing this article. The Chronicle’s coverage has become the narrative surrounding the push to reopen when in fact, we need to center those schools and families in areas like the Mission in determining what’s best.