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.