If you walked by the baseball field at Golden Gate Park on March 29, you might have seen a curious sight: A circle of high schoolers focused intently on tangles of colorful Christmas lights, wires, batteries and switches.
It was the first Monday of spring break — shouldn’t these kids be lounging at home? Instead, they had opted to learn about circuits with Andrew Libson, a long-time Mission High School physics teacher with a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. Afterward, they played Jenga and ate pizza.
And now, Libson might be in trouble for it: He’s under investigation by the school district’s human resources department and is awaiting a verdict that he fears could be anything from a slap on the wrist to a suspension.
It’s unclear what rules Libson may have violated to prompt an investigation. To his knowledge, he didn’t — and took care not to — violate any district rules, emphasizing to students that the event was entirely optional, and not a class. He also required students to get the consent of their parents before attending, with colleagues available to translate and field questions about the event in Spanish and Chinese. In the end, about 10 of 120 students opted in.
“We did more in an hour and a half than we could do in two weeks online,” he said. “It was a wonderful experience, revitalizing.”
Libson’s outdoor event is yet another example of how public school parents, students and educators are taking learning into their own hands as negotiations to reopen the city’s schools drag on. Though some younger students returned to classrooms this week, the district still lacks a plan to bring the majority of middle- and high- school students back this academic year.
When online school resumed on April 5, after spring break, kids were abuzz about the circuit-making event, telling their peers and teachers, Libson said. That’s likely how the news quickly made it up the grapevine to Principal Pirette McKamey.
By noon, an email from McKamey landed in Libson’s inbox, asking whether he had held an “outdoor class” during spring break. On Thursday, he and a union representative met with McKamey, where he fielded questions about the event and his motivations for hosting it.
By the end of the meeting, he said McKamey told him she was escalating the incident to the district’s human resources department, as she was out of her depth. Libson added that he got the sense McKamey was not on board with the outdoor learning session.
“I could find out tomorrow that they looked into it and decided not to do anything,” he said. “I could also find out that I’m suspended without pay.”
McKamey did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.
Daniel Menezes, SFUSD’s chief human resources officer, wrote in an email that the district does not comment on individual personnel matters, including investigations. He also declined to comment on broader questions about how long investigations take to conclude and what rules may govern how teachers interact with students during the pandemic or with students outside the classroom.
“We do review any allegation of misconduct by SFUSD staff, and in instances where misconduct occurs, consequences and discipline are determined by our collective bargaining agreements and Board Policy,” he wrote.
Union president Susan Solomon also declined to comment on what rules may be at play in an investigation, citing the union’s general practice of leaving the explanation of the school district’s rules to the district.
The whole incident has been disappointing for Libson, who is worried about how schools have stayed online. In addition to concerns he has about the impact of online education on students’ mental health and ability to learn, he’s worried the pandemic has been testing grounds for a permanent shift to remote learning.
“This story shows the backwardness of how we’re approaching education right now,” he said. “We’re totally open to keeping kids separate, and we censure them when they do something different.”
Two parents whose children attended the event confirmed that the activity had been presented as entirely optional and had given informed consent to let their children participate. Both also confirmed that the event had been held with safety protocols enforced, including masks, social distance, hand sanitizer and wipes.
Dalia Montoya, whose two children attended the activity, emphasized that the event was not a class — she recalled seeing another mother and five-year-old partake in the activity, as well as her daughter, Danai, who is not in Libson’s class. “That’s not a class, to me,” Montoya said.
Danai, who is in 10th grade, added that she had fun that day and didn’t believe the event warranted an investigation.
“It was the first time that I actually felt like I enjoyed learning again,” she said. “I just joined and he was okay with it because it wasn’t a part of school. He was letting us have a time where we can enjoy ourselves again.”
One of the parents, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions against his daughter, said his daughter had loved the event: She wants to be an engineer, and physics is a hard subject to learn from a book.
“Mr. Libson, he’s one of the teachers that SFUSD needs,” the parent said. “He’s concerned about his students, he’s willing to go the extra mile for them. I’m concerned about what kind of penalty or punishment he could face.”