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

Elected officials converged on a science-based argument for reopening public schools at a Thursday event announcing the launch of a city-wide petition to reopen schools. 

The event comes a day after the city announced plans to sue the school district for allegedly failing to make meaningful plans to reopen classrooms for in-person instruction as soon as safely possible. The city’s 55,000 public school students have not been in classrooms for in-person instruction for nearly a year.

“We have done everything to provide the resources through the city to get these schools open,” said Mayor London Breed, citing the city work with the school district and the $15 million it provided to help ease the school district’s budgetary shortfall. “It’s time to do it now. We shouldn’t wait until the fall.”

The teachers’ union, United Educators of San Francisco, maintains that they want to see the district agree to take precautions that go beyond the requirements of the Department of Public Health before reopening.

“United Educators is very disappointed that the City has chosen to attack rather than support the school district,” the union said in a statement to the Chronicle. “UESF has been calling for the City to help with resources, such as COVID testing and vaccines, but this has not happened.”

Officials — including Sen. Scott Wiener (D-11), Assemblyman David Chiu (D-17), Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-19) and Supervisor Rafael Mandelman — put forth similar arguments for reopening as those outlined in the city’s lawsuit: Reopening has been deemed safe by federal, state and city officials, if proper precautions are taken. City private schools and community learning hubs have been able to operate without major outbreaks. Neighboring counties have operated in-person classes safely.

Dr. Jeanne Noble, director of the Covid-19 response for the UCSF Emergency Department, said scientists now have “abundant evidence” that schools can reopen safely. She cited a January, 2021 Duke University study that followed 90,000 students and 10,000 teachers in public schools in North Carolina for four months during a covid surge in the state. 

Of those approximately 100,000 people, researchers found only 32 cases of Covid transmission, primarily among younger students and special needs students who were not masked. The study found no transmissions from student to teacher, Noble said.

“Assessing public health risk is the job of medical professionals, guided by science, not teachers’ unions,” she said. “Reopening decisions must be made on the best available evidence and not fear.”

Her comments were some of many that implicitly took shots at the teachers’ union and school district for what officials allege is unreasonable resistance. 

San Francisco’s teachers’ union said in early January that vaccines would not be enough for teachers to return, and asked for other conditions not endorsed by public health experts to be met. Those conditions included adding lids to all toilets, and requiring each local zip code to be in the state’s orange-tier for risk for two weeks.

Officials at today’s meeting urged the school district and union to work harder at negotiations to reach a deal this month. 

Weiner said a Jan. 27 newsletter from Superintendent Vincent Matthews saying it’s “unlikely” students in middle and high school will return for in-person classes this academic year was “defeatist.”

“In January? About the rest of the school year?” Weiner asked. “That is just unacceptable, and that is so harmful and damaging.”

“Let’s have a can-do attitude,” he added.

In a Thursday op-ed, Board of Education President Gabriela López pushed back against characterizations of the school district as having not worked hard enough to reopen. She said that the district does have a plan for returning to school sites and that many of the demands the union has been making are backed at the local and state level, such as prioritizing vaccines for educators or testing students.

“Now more than ever, it is abundantly clear that our public schools are critical to the health and prosperity of our whole community, not just our students,” she wrote. “They are no better served when city leaders lend lip service to their commitment to our schools while offering little meaningful help.”

Some of the disagreement revolves around whether vaccines are necessary to return to school. 

At present, California educators are in tier (1b) for vaccinations, and can now be vaccinated, if supplies are available. 

Across the United States, many counties have yet to vaccinate teachers. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, said Wednesday that vaccinations were not required to reopen schools, the New York Times reported. 

Some school district teachers, students and parents also spoke at today’s event, making arguments for reopening based on their own experiences.

“The education of our children is the hope of a better life,” said Olga Reyes, a mother from the Mission District, in Spanish. “My children need their teachers.”

And some teachers — they acknowledged a minority — told Mission Local this week that they would like to see at least some teachers able to return to the classroom.

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  1. As a parent of a sad, lonely, depressed, bored, and angry SFUSD middle school child, I very much want to get schools somewhere back to normal – I’ve wanted that for nearly a year. But Breed’s, Wiener’s, Chiu’s and Ting’s grandstanding is ridiculous.

    City and state officials need to focus on their own problems, before changing the subject to the school district (an entity distinct from their own fiefdoms).

    Up until recently, the several vaccines were what we had been waiting for. Now, because neither the city nor the state can figure out how to procure and distribute those vaccines quickly and efficiently, “science” tells us that teachers do not really need a vaccine.

    They way city and state officials have articulated their view of it, the difficult process of reopening schools is really just selfishness on the part of the teachers and incompetence on the part of the district as a whole. But when the city and state face extremely complex issues that have interfered with getting the job done, they don’t see it as incompetence.

    Because Breed, Wiener, Chiu and Ting are opposed to the “science” of the vaccines as an important aspect of workplace safety for teachers (and librarians, principals, custodians, cafeteria workers, secretaries, social workers and everyone else at a school site who has regular contact with students and the other adults at the school), I assume they have already put themselves last in line for receiving a vaccination. Breed lives alone and is supposed to be a leader on the social practices that are highly effective in preventing Covid-19 transmission, so she actually should be more than happy never to get vaccinated. Chiu and Ting have families (don’t know if the Tings are still separated) but if they’d just stay in their home bubble, they won’t need to be vaccinated either. I don’t know anything about Wiener’s domestic life, but if he lives alone, he’s completely safe. If he has a few family/roommate people in his life, then he can just stay bubbled up too. Literally, they are some of the last people on the planet that should be vaccinated based on their exposure risks. They might imagine themselves to be essential workers, but they’re not driving buses, providing direct patient care, cashiering at Safeway, processing food at some factory or preparing it at one of the restaurants they get Uber Eats independent contractors to bring to them three or more times a day. And they certainly aren’t having regular face to face contact with dozens of the children and other adults in enclosed spaces (that’s how schools actually operate for those who might think otherwise).

    Three of these bigmouths are state officials, so they should really start ordering the UC and CSU systems to open up … tomorrow. I would guess that every state college and university in California has more resources and vastly more space than SFUSD and any of its school sites. If UC, with all of its Nobel Prize winners, Macarthur Grant recipients, famed authors, intellectual powerhouses, vast sums of state, federal and corporate money as well as a huge endowment, and “well-qualified” Regents cannot figure out how to get their students back in their buildings, maybe there’s something bigger going on and state elected officials should stop just grabbing headlines.

    Breed at least should welcome Haney’s work to force DPH to come up with a plan for vaccines … something they haven’t figured out yet.

  2. In Ontario, Canada, schools have been open since September but closed during their true lockdown since the holidays.

    They are now reopening schools long before *anything else* with randomized asymptomatic testing, including variants, and lots of PPE and safety supports.

    Schools are opening long before bars, gyms, and non-essential shops. They are basing this decision on actual science, not the convenient interpretation of science that our city and citizens have been following.

  3. … just wait-a-minute … we’re busy tearin’ out murals, renaming schools, and eliminating barriers to mediocrity. We’ll git to reopening … soon. And by-the-way, give us some more Rainy Day money, cuz we’re wasting a lot already.