The students normally wear masks while distance learning, but Brian Jose was photographed after a snack. Photo by Kate Selig.

The nine figures sat silently on camping chairs and blankets in Dolores Park, shaded by a big tree. They’re wired in, laptops open and headphones on, rapidly typing while keeping an eye on their video calls and packed calendars.

A chihuahua ambles between them, sniffing shoes and nudging legs, to figure out what they’re up to. Building the next “Uber for X,” perhaps? No, they’re public school kids trying to pass math.

And when they’ve figured out one problem, they toss their laptops down and run to the swings, whooping with laughter. After a few minutes, it’s back to math.

For five Latino families, this informal outdoor school in the park has become the answer to distance learning and the mental-health problems and loneliness that it triggered in their kids. Since the new year, the outdoor sessions — masked, with social distance — have run three days a week.

“After two weeks, they were again happy and laughing,” said Dheyanira Calahorrano, who organized the group. “They are together, they are seeing each other, they are playing, they are running.” 

Amadeo Soto-Knight, 10, said with confidence (and disappointment) that he’s been learning online for “two and a half years.” At least the last year has felt like that. Being inside all day made him sad, though he couldn’t quite place why. But he knows why he likes school better in the park. “It’s been a lot funner,” he says. 

Moreover, his grades have improved, and he’s seeing friends his age. 

Calahorrano first tried advocacy to get her child, Amaru, back in school. Before the holiday winter surge, she helped collect 70 signatures from families in the Mission who wanted to return to the classroom. Next came a letter from Calahorrano and others in her learning pod imploring the district to reopen. Nothing worked.

The final straw came when her son, a smart kid, called her during work: “‘Mom, my grades are trash, I’m trash,’ he said,” Calahorrano recalled. “So that was it. This was not working. I could not let [school] crash my kid like that.”

So she took matters into her own hands. She had seen the potential of outdoor learning when her son attended once-a-week music classes over the summer. That, Calahorrano decided, was the answer. She gathered a group of families, raised money for folding chairs and blankets by selling tamales, and launched the first outdoor-learning session in early January.

“New year, new school, new life,” she said.

Is it safe? Calahorrano points to their record: seven weeks of outdoor learning without any Covid-19 cases. 

She also motioned to the Children’s Day School, an imposing red-brick private school located next to Dolores Park. She regularly sees groups of 20 children leaving the school and playing together on the field.

“The wealthy kids that can pay $30,000 a year are allowed to be outside, playing with friends,” she said. But, she adds, if “socializing has become a privilege,” it’s also clear that she and other parents are unwilling to accept that notion. 

The other parents agreed: Socializing is key to their children’s health, and if it takes hosting these outdoor learning sessions, so be it.

Rocio Bautista’s son became anxious and depressed as the months of online learning dragged on. But even then, he was a responsible student, present for attendance and turning in his homework on time. But when their home internet fails, it can reduce him to tears.  

Now that he’s outdoors with his friends, she said, he’s doing a lot better. He even has a better internet connection from the park. On Tuesday night, Bautista’s son started to cook snacks at 10 p.m. because he knew he was coming to the park on Wednesday, and he wanted something to share with his friends.

The children also said they are happier. “It just felt like I was stuck not doing anything,” said Amaru Duran, 11. “I was just sitting in my chair in my room, not doing anything.”

He’s doing better now, he said. He gets to see his friends.

Outdoor learning benefits the parents as well, giving them more time to focus on things other than their children’s online education. And for Olga Reyes, who has been out of work, supervising the young students has become a job. The other moms chip in to pay her for watching over the children at the park.

All the parents said they want the schools to reopen, but they aren’t optimistic it will happen in the near future. On Feb. 7, the union and the school district reached a tentative agreement to reopen, depending on how prevalent Covid is in the city and whether teachers are vaccinated. But the Board of Education delayed a vote on the deal Tuesday night in favor of a closed-door session to discuss a legal issue.

For now, the current setup is working for the parents and their children — maybe even better than going back to school would, now that the kids can be outside instead of cooped up in a classroom, Calahoraano said. She hopes other families will consider taking similar measures.

“The kids finally have a bit of stability after months of chaos,” Reyes said in Spanish, with a cheerful yellow visor shielding her face from the midday sun. Nearby, the kids gathered at a park bench for lunch, chihuahua in tow. 

Afterward, they’ll play in the wet grass until their parents come to take them home.

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Kate Selig is an intern at Mission Local.

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  1. I do not understand why or how Superintendent Matthews has largely escaped criticism for completely failing to discuss or create outdoor learning for SF students on campuses, or for coming up with a plan for hybrid home/school/outdoor learning. So he couldn’t get a contract in June, and now 8 months later, nothing and no transparency. He could have been leading citywide discussion, taking surveys, public zoom meetings at schools to find out what is available at schools and what is needed, and parents would have stepped up to make sure schools were taken care of. Parents, teachers, principals have been ignored and shut down when trying to bring these ideas forward from their own schools, even when offering to help other schools. What a tragedy for so many students. And the school board attacks parents, rather than recognize that all the parents in public schools have valid concerns, and all of them want the schools to be safe. And everyone deserves to have their kids educated and their concerns heard and not mocked.

    1. What kind of plan for opening safely is being proposed by SFUSD? We have no idea, because they haven’t made a proposal. Maybe a hybrid proposal would make sense for under 16 year olds (who can’t be vaccinated) for social distancing, depending on the proposal, but we don’t know because no schedules have been proposed by SFUSD.

  2. It’s so great that these parents were able to set up this amazing system for their kids. And such a pity that SFUSD crushed any efforts to set up such groups on a wide scale through the school, as they did at Rooftop Elementary. Really shameful.

    1. I love these parents! What a fabulous way to continue education during a pandemic. Thinking outside the box is critical at a time like this. I am a credentialed elementary school teacher, mom of 3, who lives around the corner from Dolores Park and would love to be part of a system like this. I taught in the Mission for years so please reach out!

  3. Expensive private school though it is, Children’s Day School still requires a significant public subsidy to operate successfully. The kids Ms. Calahorrano regularly sees playing at Dolores Park are there because the school itself was developed without the necessary infrastructure. There is no on-site playground, athletic field or recreation area at the middle school campus (the “imposing red-brick” former church at 19th and Dolores).

    CDS is not the only private school that leeches off the public in this way. The Chinese American International School campus at 888 Turk Street also does not have its own recreation area. Margaret Hayward Playground and Recreation area is across the street. Why should the rich pay for something that public schools have to provide when they can simply annex a public park? Xian Yun Academy of the Arts (1970 Page Street) is seeking to expand at its current location – this time legally. That school also fails to provide for its students in the way a public school has to. Maybe because its students are “artists” they never go outside for play and exercise, but I doubt it. City Academy in the Tenderloin does not have a playground either, so the school uses Boeddeker Park. Currently, Rec and Park has given them an exclusive use permit because of Covid-19. 100 or so private school kids have access to the playground until 2:30 on school days. 3,000 plus kids in the neighborhood have to wait until then before they can play in a public space.

    Public offerings aren’t good or exclusive enough for families who send their kids to private schools – unless it’s a fully publicly subsidized park whose existence adjacent to the school site means the school does not have to pay for land and development costs for recreation areas.

    1. Why, then, are SFUSD schools NOT making use of these resources during a pandemic? Public parks are just that — public, as in every resident or visitor to the city should have the right to access them. Private school students are still residents of the city, and their parents presumably still pay city taxes for the privilege of living here. They should have access to the parks if they want, and I’m glad private schools are making use of them. The real tragedy is that SFUSD is refusing to even consider the possibility of making use of these resources to open class safely.

      1. My point is not that the private school kids should not be able to use the parks. But the schools’ land acquisition costs are cut in half by deliberately under investing in necessary recreation infrastructure. Are you suggesting that it would also be okay for public schools not have playgrounds for their kids? What happens if there’s a public school and a private school right next to each other, neither of which has a recreation area but there’s a park across the street? Which school gets to use it, or is it okay to have two soccer games going on at the same time on the same field? If the public fields are never available during the day because a private school has reserved it for nine months, is that a good thing? I would say no.

        This is not dissimilar to the charter school that does not have its own library because they are near a public library. That school doesn’t have to provide the space, the computers to access the catalog, and the books. But that same school will happily take the PEEF monies that are intended to pay for a librarian.

        1. Pretty sure that if our public schools had shown ANY interest in making use of our public resources during this pandemic, SF Recs and Park would have done so happily and in fact given them “dibs” on these resources first, before private schools. Heck, Rec & Park space is being used for learning hubs to educate SFUSD kids throughout the city — the difference is that SFUSD had nothing to do with actually organizing that. Also, some public elementary schools in the city don’t have playgrounds or enclosed play spaces. That was one of the justifications used for why using outdoor space for school wasn’t viable — that it wasn’t on site. I’ve always been pretty anti-private school, but in this pandemic, they’ve done what they needed to do to serve their students. The same cannot be said for public schools.

          1. It is news to me that some SFUSD elementary schools have no playgrounds. Could you please let me know which ones those are?

    2. As a parent who chose public school over private, I can tell you that it is one of my greatest regrets. If we allow underfunding and policy to wreak havoc on public schools, then we have to deal with the consequences. Resenting the rich is an exercise in futility. Advocating for public school funding and competent leadership and showing up at the ballot to make sure we have both, now that’s time well spent.