Remember grad night? Remember being herded into the high school gym for inane activities by parents and administrators who wanted to give 18-year-olds inane things to do to keep them out of trouble?
Your humble narrator hadn’t thought about grad night in many years. And then the district announced a farcical plan for graduating seniors to attend three days of busywork at a site that is likely not even their own high school; this would be the in-person totality of their final year as San Francisco public school students.
Here’s how this worked, according to sources directly involved in the process: Central administrators polled students who’d be interested in returning to school and teachers who’d be interested in teaching them. And then, after negotiations, students and teachers were given a rather different offer: Three days of inane activities at a high school that may not even have been theirs.
To many, this had the whiff of a cynical grab for state dollars by returning kids for what would be more accurately labeled a “school-like substance” than “school.” Teachers, we’re told, are backing out: They feel they’ve been misled and used and this isn’t what they signed up for.
And, looking ahead, there are more disturbing implications. The masterminds behind this cunning plan are now charged with figuring out how to bring back students in the fall for five days of in-person instruction per week, as the district has “committed” itself to do.
Bafflingly, while principals and teachers have been told what time school is starting next year, they haven’t yet been told what school is going to be — whether it’ll be “school” or a “school-like substance.” When parents ask, they have little information to impart.
“We’ve heard no information about reopening in the fall,” a longtime principal tells me. “Zero.”
“I haven’t heard anything,” says another. “We are oftentimes the last to know.”
And, says a third, “We don’t know. It’s cutting it very close. We don’t know if teachers will have to do in-person and distance learning; we don’t know if kids who want to do distance learning will have to Zoom into another site. We don’t know all the things we’d want to tell parents.”
Does this augur failure? Not necessarily. Most every principal I spoke with — and I spoke with a lot — said that in-person school is going excellently so far. Covid rates, if you’re wondering, have been minuscule.
Most principals we contacted were optimistic or even highly optimistic about elementary school looking somewhat normal next school year. But beyond that, it’s hard to say — and there are any number of factors, good or bad, that make things hard to predict (vaccines for kids as young as 12, for one).
But for all the opacity around what the next school year will look like, the ongoing pandemic has given us some clarity on the San Francisco Unified School District.
The pandemic has (further) exposed an outfit with a dodgy project management record. What’s more, it has exposed a lumbering and top-down decision-making process, which maximizes delays and uncertainty, and incentivizes — if not mandates — paralysis among the on-the-ground administrators who’ll actually be tasked with carrying out whatever it is the district opts to do.
Pandemic planning, of course, requires lumbering and top-down decision-making about project management.
Ergo: A problem.
To be clear, the Board of Education made “a commitment” to returning students to in-person learning by the first day of the next school year. “Our firm intention to ensure all students are able to attend full-time, 5 days a week, in-person learning on the first day of school,” reads the resolution (which also uses the squishier and more ambiguous language, “In-person instruction will remain the primary and majority offering of the district … ”).
To be clear, Larry King made “a commitment” to each of his seven wives.
Matt Alexander, an elected member of the Board of Education, says he thinks the direction from his colleagues and himself was unambiguous. “We, as a board, have made it very clear we’re moving forward with a full reopening in the fall,” he said. “That is what the direction from the board is. We should be planning as if it’s a full reopening in the fall.”
We should be. But are we? That’s harder to know. For all the headlines and rancor, the Board of Education generated in the past year, its role in actually running the district is circumscribed. One principal likened the relationship between the Board of Education and the district to that of the Parent-Teacher Association and an individual school.
And, while the elected board members have important roles to play, they are not doing the day-to-day work and policy implementation. They are paid $500 a month and sit through increasingly surreal 12-hour meetings — but there are highly paid subject-matter experts, like superintendent Dr. Vincent Matthews and his deputies, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to get the schools open.
So that leads to the inevitable question: What’s the plan?
“I, personally, have not seen any plans,” said Board of Education member Kevine Boggess. He admits this lack of transparency and communication “is very frustrating to families.”
The outcome here will — God willing — work out for everyone. But this process isn’t working out for anyone.
In a nutshell, the district and the United Educators of San Francisco union will have to negotiate a broad agreement. Bargaining regarding the fall, we’re told, hasn’t started yet; discussions regarding “immediate needs and summer school” are “wrapping up.”
When it comes to fall, after the shape of the table has been determined and all the t’s have been crossed and i’s dotted, will details be dropped upon the scores of site administrators and union reps at each school.
There are lots of problems here, but the district’s farcical three-day “grad night” for seniors highlights a big one. Teachers — and their union — hoping to see off graduating seniors from their high school campuses, were told by district reps that there simply wasn’t time for the Health Department to examine and clear every high school.
Wasn’t time? These schools have, by and large, been locked down for 13 months; any issues could’ve been addressed aeons ago. But this top-down, hurry up-and-wait M.O. is how the district rolls.
Principals and others site administrators are sitting on their hands, waiting for the district to meet with the union and take in the latest from the state and the Health Department. And, only after all of these inputs have been delivered and processed and all of the negotiations are complete and the tablets have been chiseled and carried down from Mt. Sinai, they’ll spring into action.
Remedial steps — steps everyone knows will have to be addressed eventually — are being put off needlessly until the district can hand down its dictums, adding an unnecessary hair-on-fire element into a process that’s already harrowing enough.
“The folks on the top are not talking to the people on the ground doing the work. This is how leadership works in the district, and it’s infuriating,” says a longtime official. The superintendent and higher-ups are “waiting for the state and Department of Public Health to give their guidelines and then tell principals what is going on. But that’s crazy: It’s mid-May!”
Adds a longtime teacher: “Yes, guidance has changed. But it hasn’t changed so drastically we can’t start planning. It would be so much easier to adjust as guidance changes, rather than everybody just sitting tight until someone at the district level tells us what the parameters are.”
But that’s what’s happening. And, as it is, even the most obvious on-site problem — inadequate numbers of windows that don’t open, tiny classrooms, a wayward circus and its animals taking up residence in the gym — can’t be addressed until the district hands down its broader plan.
As far as that “plan” goes, we requested clarity from the district. The response, in total, is reprinted below:
SFUSD remains committed to a full, 5-day return to in-person learning for fall 2021 and is also planning to offer virtual learning options for students. State and local reopening plans and public health guidance have a significant impact on our fall 2021 reopening plan.
Maybe that’s a mission statement. But it ain’t a plan.
So, you do remember grad night — right? In college, your humble narrator met a guy we’ll call Tom. Because that’s his name. At his high school grad night, they offered the opportunity to, of all things, create ceramics. He crafted a fine mug and, on the side of it, painted “FUCK THIS SHIT.”
It was apropos then. All these years later, it feels apropos now.