For teachers in favor of reopening schools, Wednesday’s announcement that the city will sue the school district to force a faster reopening, was welcome news — albeit tempered by disappointment that the situation had come to this point.
How the move will affect the school district’s reopening timeline is unclear, but the lawsuit provides hope that the drawn-out negotiations between the city, school district and union will be expedited.
“It was the only way to get through to the district,” said Iris Weiss, a special education teacher at Balboa High School. “If this is what it takes for them to lay out a plan, then so be it.”
For those like Weiss who want to go back, the argument is simple: Distance learning is not good for the students, and it’s safe to teach in person.
While the four teachers Mission Local spoke with are unsure how many others want to return now to the classroom, they said that the union’s discourse against reopening has dominated most of the public conversation. “I felt like we were in the minority, but more folks are starting to open up to the idea,” said Jack Doyle, a teacher at Lincoln. He said Wednesday’s announcement drew some educators out of the woodwork to express support for reopening.
Moreover, they made it clear that they don’t want to require every student and teacher to go back into the classrooms, especially in situations where people have pre-existing conditions or other factors that put them at higher risk for catching the virus. But, they say, people should have the choice to go back if they want.
(A union survey conducted in October found that 83 percent of educators were not ready to return to in-person instruction and 63 percent wanted to continue teaching remotely during hybrid learning.)
Other teachers estimated support at 50/50 for going back to classrooms. Indeed, it almost might be better if half the teachers and students don’t want to go back, said Weiss. That could help with social distancing.
The city’s rationale for the lawsuit is that the school district has violated a state law that requires districts to have a clear plan during the pandemic to take actions that would allow “classroom-based instruction whenever possible,” said Dennis Herrera, the city attorney.
Recent school district communication has made clear that reopening is not on the table for the near future. Superintendent Vincent Matthews said it’s “unlikely” students in middle and high school will return for in-person classes this academic year in a Jan. 27 newsletter to families.
The approximately 55,000 students in the city’s public school system have not attended in-person classes in nearly a year.
The lawsuit was followed Thursday by a citywide petition from families to reopen schools for in-person instruction.
The district and teachers union panned the city’s lawsuit, and Matthews called it a distraction. “This isn’t helpful when we’re all in this together,” he said. “To turn on those of us trying to solve this is not helpful whatsoever.”
For teachers who are in favor of reopening, they say science has come down on their side. Federal health officials said last week that in-person instruction can be carried out safely, provided that students and faculty wear masks and maintain social distance.
“I believe in science, and I believe that if the CDC says that it’s safe enough to go back if you follow these precautions, then that’s safe enough for me,” said Weiss.
Roughly 16,000 students in city’s private schools have been able to attend full- or part-time in-person classes without triggering major outbreaks, according to Herrera. In neighboring Marin County, 90 percent of the schools have resumed in-person instruction with only nine recorded cases of in-school transmission.
Kevin Doherty, a physical education teacher at Lincoln High School, said the difference between the education his children are receiving in private school versus his students is profound.
“I drop off my two blonde-haired blue-eyed children at private school to take classes in person then I go home to Zoom to first-generation students of color with a bunch of black screens because nobody turns their camera on,” he said.
Other teachers added that teaching online has let some students fall through the cracks. They told stories of students who would come to in-person classes every day but can’t be found online, students living in small apartments who can’t get the privacy necessary to come to class, and students experiencing mental health problems from distance learning.
School district data confirms that the pandemic has widened the learning gap between students who are wealthy and white versus those who are low-income or students of color.
Doherty also works with first-gen students of color to complete their college applications. His three students who landed interviews with Princeton are all Black women, but Doherty said because of distance learning, they’ve been tasked with taking care of siblings or relatives.
“You’re trying to go to Princeton, but you have to take care of a fifth-grader on Zoom doing Common Core math. It’s just wrong,” he said.
Online learning has also taken away opportunities for the small moments of connection that keep students engaged and help teachers determine how their students are doing.
“One thing that fuels me is the hundreds of positive interactions you can have every single day just by smiling at a kid and saying ‘hi’ in a hallway,” Doyle said. “That’s all gone now.”
To a degree, almost every educator does want to re-open. The question is: when, and under what conditions? At what point is going back to school safe?
Even vaccinating teachers might not be enough for the union to come around. It has asked for other conditions not endorsed by public health experts to be met, such as adding lids to all toilets and requiring each local zip code to be in the state’s orange tier for risk for two weeks.
“At the end of the day, most teachers want to get back in the classroom and serve students,” said Brendan Furey, a social studies teacher at Lincoln High School. “It’s my guess that most would show up if they have trust in the school district’s reopening plan.”