At long last, students at three dozen San Francisco public schools arrived today for in-person instruction. That list includes a handful of Mission District schools and, for the first time in more than a year, neighborhood parents could be seen walking their public school children to class.
It’s been quite a year for every parent, but especially so for Jaqueline Martínez, 23, and her 4-year-old son, Edwin.
Martínez, a 23-year-old Honduran immigrant, lost her job cleaning offices at the onset of the pandemic. Then the building she was living in, at 21st and Capp streets, burned, and she was forced to move out.
She came to the United States two years ago to escape an abusive relationship and has no family here, but managed to find a place in the Richmond District with a childhood friend; the two single mothers are raising their children together.
Edwin, who has not been able to play with many children over the past year, doesn’t speak much English at all, but was full of excitement to go to his first day at Zaida T. Rodriguez Early Education School on Bartlett Street between 25th and 26th streets.
Joining Martínez on the first-day-of-school trek were sisters Claudia and Adriana Miranda, who walked their two children to Zaida T. Rodriguez along Mission Street.
Claudia said in Spanish that she was a little nervous, because her kids have to “follow all the rules of washing their hands, and staying distanced.” But she was happy. “The kids are curious and want to do everything.” She has been living on Mission Street for 15 years and also has another child, Octavo, who is 13 and is not yet able to go back to in-person learning.
Adriana, the mother of a 5-year-old, said she is both “content and nervous.”
David Murphy, 38, biked from 30th Street and Sanchez with his 5-year-old twins in a trailer. They were excited and jumping around, Murphy explained. “I have been doing school in the morning with them on Zoom, and I am excited for them to have more time with their peers,” as they have only really had each other to socialize with.
A worker assisting at the front of Zaida T. Rodriguez put her hands up and said, “I think we’re more excited than the kids! Yay! So excited to welcome them back!”
Greeting the arrivals was the school’s principal, Dr. D’Andrea Robinson. She added that she’s “very glad to be back in service in the community, full-time, five days a week.”
“This morning, it really felt like a new vibe. It feels good.”
Everyone could use a new vibe. The road to this point has been a circuitous one.
The San Francisco Unified School District, its school board, and its workforce had not made steady progress, nor communicated effectively with public school parents. The sclerotic re-opening pace and vague plans spurred City Attorney Dennis Herrera to take the unprecedented step of suing the district, claiming it was violating of California’s Constitution by declining to offer in-person learning “to the greatest extent possible.” A judge last month denied the city’s effort to obtain a preliminary injunction, and reopening has chugged forward.
A number of school principals last week described a frenetic effort to pull off a plan that many complained was coming together very quickly despite so much lead time.
Principals on each site were working over minute details regarding health screenings, food distribution, Covid-19 exposure protocols and the arduous task of coping with a teacher shortage at a time when putting more kids into classrooms to compensate is not possible.
Some students will be supervised by a substitute while instructed by a teacher-of-record on a screen. In other cases, there will only be a substitute, and, in some situations, there isn’t an available sub.
(Principals also note that they’ve been told there will be no in-person graduation ceremonies to conclude this truncated in-person school year — “I’m sure parents will be super upset,” one principal says).
But these logistical hurdles were back-of-mind for the parents and children showing up at around 9 a.m. at Cesar Chavez Elementary School on Shotwell between 22nd and 23rd streets.
As kindergarten and first-grade students lined up on Shotwell, school staff proceeded down the queue, asking each family covid screening questions; if given the all-clear, each student received a small circular colored sticker on their arm.
Every grade — kindergarten, first- and second-grade students — entered through a separate entrance, lined up in a separate line. Classes were set to begin at 9:30 a.m. And, eyeballing the several dozen families lined up (mostly mothers with children), Jackie Chavez, a school district administrator on-site to help guide families, said it was not crowded and chaotic as she’d imagined it might be.
“I’m so excited,” said Chavez, who normally works to promote sustainable transportation for parents. “I couldn’t sleep last night.”
She described some of the measures the school was taking, such as lunches eaten only among cohorts and only in the classroom, and recess only with one’s cohort.
But perhaps the most tricky requirements were the mandates that parents must wait in line with their children before they are screened, and must pick up their children when class ends at 1:30 p.m., as there are no after-school programs. Otherwise, their children cannot do in-person learning, Chavez said.
Nachelle Byrd, a mother of a first grader at Cesar Chavez and a third grader at Buena Vista Horace Mann, was thinking about how to make that work, as both schools start at the same time. “Someone is gonna have to be late,” she surmised.
“To be honest, I’m more concerned with scheduling than health,” she continued.
But, overall, she was happy it was the first day of school after a whole year of no in-person classes. “I feel like we’ve been dealing with this for long enough,” she said. Her young children, she said, “are ready to get back to school.”
Onny Martinez, who was the first in line with her first-grade daughter, Vieda, also appeared relieved. The past year, she said, “has been a lot.”
“The kids weren’t learning what they were supposed to be learning,” she said. “My daughter lowered her scholastics and she’s not where she is supposed to be; it’s as if she’s in kindergarten.”
No in-person learning also meant it was more difficult for Martinez to find work. She and her daughter immigrated from Honduras two years ago, and with a kid at home on Zoom, finding steady work has been especially difficult. Making matters worse, she and her family all came down with Covid-19 four months ago.
Nevertheless, being at Chesar Chavez on Monday morning made her feel “happy.”
And she was not alone. Over at George Moscone Elementary on Harrison Street between 21st and 22nd streets, custodian Patty Serbellon opened the school’s gates to receive a bag of toilet paper and other cleaning materials early Monday morning.
“I am feeling great!” said Serbellon, a five-year custodian at Moscone, who herself suffered through Covid seven months ago.
“I’m happy because I get to see the the kids today!”
Update, 2 p.m.:
Moscone Elementary’s Mackenzie Hernandez, as many students typically do, carefully chose her first-day-of-school outfit. Obviously, it would be her unicorn t-shirt and colorful heart-patterned pants; these nicely complemented her matching sparkly pink unicorn backpack and lunch box. Best of all, she had the chance to show it off in front of her four friends and her new kindergarten teacher. “We were eating lunch together and she was talking to us,” Hernandez recalled.
There were 10 other students, Mackenzie said. They drew pictures and “studied.” Hernandez’s 15-year-old sister, Sally, picked her up a bit before the crowd. Sally goes to Galileo High School (remotely), and said having her little sister attending school in-person allowed Sally to focus more on her own studies instead of aiding Mackenzie during her online school.
Mackenzie says she “likes going to the classroom” instead of being on her computer. She will go to Moscone five days a week, her older sister confirmed.
Teresa Dalmadi, 8, and her younger brother Jhonnathan, 6, were escorted out the door by a faculty member from George Moscone and picked up by their father, also Jhonnathan.
“Me siento muy feliz,” Teresa said about her day. Then, in English, “It was like a giant thumbs up!” She said, making the “good job” gesture with her own hand to emphasize the point.
“We learned a lot,” she said in Spanish, though she couldn’t remember what it was exactly. She also couldn’t remember how many kids were in her class. But, she remembers recess. “We played so much, that’s why it’s better than being at home. You can run around and play games on the patio,” she said while simultaneously performing multiple pirouettes.
Her brother, entering first grade, agreed. “We went to the park, and I liked it.” The 6-year-old showed off a picture of a rainbow he made at school.
Their father, Jhonnathan, said in Spanish he’s most excited for them to return for their social development. “Both are really shy, so it’ll be good for them. It’s time things get back to normal,” he said, as he put on his son’s green backpack. That also means the elder Jhonnathan may have more time to resume working as a Lyft driver now that the kids are out of the house. He’s been out of work since February. “It’s been tough economically, but I hope I can do it again,” he said.
Over at Bryant Elementary School, kids bolted out the doors and into the arms of waiting parents at pickup time, aglow with stories of their first days back and the prospect of an ice cream from the cart ingeniously stationed at the corner of the street.
Maria Chavez, 62, was at Bryant to pick up her grandson from kindergarten. At the start of the pandemic, she was hesitant about the possibility of Mariano going back to school, especially since the case counts seemed so high and there seemed to be conflicting about the virus.
But the plan the school district settled on for reopening convinced her it would be safe to send him back. She also makes sure Mariano does his part, sanitizing his hands and dutifully wearing his mask.
“We have to keep moving forward,” she said. “He’s been dying to get back to school, and it’s been hard, being at home, doing the same thing over and over again.”
And Mariano seemed happy to be back: “Good!” he yelled when asked how his day went, before trying to tug Chavez toward the ice cream.
Aniya Mitchell, a kindergartener, was all smiles after her first day back at school, dressed head-to-toe in varying shades of pink. She said emphatically that she liked her first day back at school — her class even had a popcorn party.
“Our friends had a lot of popcorn. And I got to pass out the snacks!” she said.
She’s very glad to be back with her friends: “I only got to see them on the computer, but now I get to see them right there.”
For Bryant Principal Laura Codicetti, the April 12 reopening has been a long time in the making — six months, in fact. For the most part, the day went smoothly, save for some conventional kerfuffles, like a student being sent home on the bus whose parents wanted to pick them up (the child was eventually tracked down).
“Parents have been supportive, teachers have been responsive. I’m lucky I have a nice team,” she said. “Everyone is super excited, and we are hoping that, next year, all the kids can come back together.”
Finally, Claudia Miranda’s son, Cesar, who is pictured above walking to Zaida T. Rodriguez with his mom and his aunt, said school was fun, and he got to do lots of things — like play basketball. “I am happy to be back in school because it is new, and I only took my mask off to eat and sleep,” he said.
And 4-year-old Itzela Luporini, who lives in Noe Valley, was giggly and energetic after being picked up from preschool at Zaida T. Rodriguez today by her mom and dad. When her mother asked if she liked computer school or wants to go back to in-person school, Luporini pointed excitedly to the school building.