FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL, SAN FRANCISCO: Adriana Miranda (left), and her sister Claudia Miranda (right) walk their sons Cesar and Sebastian, both 5, to kindergarten at Zaida T. Rodriguez Early Education School. The sisters say they are excited to have their children back in school. Mission schools open first day during the pandemic. Image shows parents bringing their children back to school. Photo by Clara-Sophia Daly.
Adriana Miranda (left), and her sister Claudia Miranda walk their sons Cesar and Sebastian, both 5, to kindergarten at Zaida T. Rodriguez Early Education School on April 12. The sisters say they are excited to have their children back in school. Photo by Clara-Sophia Daly.

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.  

Mission High football field. Photo by Kerim Harmanci.

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.” 

SFUSD enrollment fair, 2014
In happier times: Hundreds of kids flood John O’Connell High in 2014 for an enrollment event. Photo by Andra Cernavskis.

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.” 

Everett Middle School. Photo by Lydia Chávez.

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. 


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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. 1. The person with the ability to open the schools is Sup Matthews. Not the board or the unions. He can reopen all schools tomorrow if he wanted to. He has another job as a professor at State. Maybe he is too busy to open schools.

    2. The proposed consultant was a pro- charter school one. Why not offer three or four consultants. Why are we assuming that one was the best? We have a super highly educated central office staff making on average $200 000 and none could think of a plan.

    3. The YMCA, Boys and Girls Clubs, cultural centers, and churches have been teaching our kids for 16 months safely. Cant we ask them what they did?

    4. I am back at my school doing a zoom in a room and it is boring but I LOVE being back. I want to teach again and I want my own kids in school again. It is safe. Teachers are rule followers. We can do this.

    5. LA and NY reopening fully next year!! Come on SF! Where is the beat LA chant when we really need it and do a better job?

  2. look closely at that picture of the mission high “football” field, or simply google “everett middle school student elections” and you’ll learn everything you need to know about SFUSD, I can not be more pleased that my youngest child is a graduating senior this year

  3. Soooooo glad we jumped the SFUSD sinking ship when we did. Chater all the way baby! Come to the dark side!

  4. I’m so glad we left when we could (November 2020). Our new school district has its ducks in a clear row. They know exactly how many students (K-12) are opting for distance learning so they can hire the right amount of teaches for that job. They are actively hiring bus drivers and subs. Given the great in-person schooling my kids have received since leaving SFUSD, I still have PTSD reading about this and really am heartbroken for those kids we left behind at SFUSD. I’m so sorry.

  5. Wow, so the root problem with the SFUSD might not be the relatively powerless circus animals on the School Board, rather the supposedly “responsible adult” powerful superintendent and the superintendent’s choice of the district’s management style?

    The “responsible adult” at the SFUSD is revealed to a bureaucratic juvenile delinquent who has just laid out the terms for his last year.

    The “responsible adult” at the City Attorney is revealed to have counseled criminal clients during their public sector corruption crime sprees, is fawned over by the City family, and gets a promotion to run an agency riven with corruption.

    The “responsible adult” at the Controller’s office failed to identify patterns of out-of-control corrupt malfeasance and yet remains in the job.

    Yet the conservative politcal shrews and their media boosters routinely blame everyone else as irresponsible children when it turns out that’s little more than lampshading.

    1. If the superintendent was clearly at fault, it would’ve been a walk in the park for the BOE to deflect all blame onto them. One or two public meetings where they are summoned and grilled. Instead, the borderline sociopaths on the board spent their time reinventing alternative learning and sucking on their thumbs until lawsuits sprung them into action.

        1. No actually most people are upset that they’ve been swindled by a year and a half of education for their children.

          1. Perhaps the neoliberal nonprofit class can administer expendable Latinx workers as they’re put at risk on the job and at home, celebrate them being offered some food, aspirin and a band aid.

            Teachers are better educated and their understanding of the situation and their aspirations are not subdued by a city funded nonprofit.

            What you want are equal parts suicidal and homicidal idiots to teach your kids so they can grow up to be just like you. I’d prefer the living, breathing thinking teachers who are not so easily cowed by right wing zealots.

    2. Superintendent Mathews has had his hands tied by the board, to the point where he told them he’s resigning. They refused to hire a reopening consultant and interfered in his administrative duties. He only agreed to come back, after he forced them to amend his contract where they swear they will not interfere with his work – specifically the hiring and firing decisions and stop wasting the meeting time on items not related to reopening the schools. The reason they agreed was they wouldn’t be able to find another sucker to take the job, after the way Vincent Mathews was treated.

      1. Get it through your thick head: we’re not going to be seeing a return to universal in-school learning until vaccination is complete.

        If the thesis of this piece is correct, giving Matthews even greater latitude is only going to consolidate the district’s sketchy information sharing and decision making processes.

  6. Matt Alexander thinks they’ve been unambiguous? HAHAHAHAHA. Is that why he voted against hiring a consultant to prepare a reopening plan? Why he went along with Lopez when she continually scheduled the reopening plan for the end of the agenda, and the meetings went on for 5, 6 or 7 hours before even beginning to talk about it? Is that why they never asked questions about what high school reopening would look like, for months and months? Is that why he and the other Board members allowed Collins to table the contract for the only high school level administrator for months, and it was only renewed last week after Matthews forced the Board to agree to his personnel decisions in his signed contract (and Collins still tried to get rid of him)? Is that why he and the other Board members negotiated a contract that doesn’t require going back in person full time and seems to have plenty of provisions that work against that? SFUSD has plenty of management problems, but the Board of Ed has been completely inconsistent, and forced the staff’s eye “off the ball” of in-person re-opening for months and months by forcing them instead to concentrate on their other pet projects, resulting in litigation and dysfunction.

  7. Is SFUSD releasing any numbers on how many students and teachers left the district before and during the 2020/21 school year?

    There is no way to tell how many students and teachers will start the 2021-22 year, but they can at least tell us how many transition year students have registered (K, 6, 9). That number would be an estimate, since some will leave over the summer or get spots from independent school waitlists.

    Rumor has it SFUSD is down 19K students for 2020/21 — a huge one-year drop that will no doubt affect school opening.

    The BOE is a mess, please sign on to recall our most rotten members!

  8. Makes things a bit easier to take when the story is written in a witty way and one can at least have a larf at the inanity.

    Does this not circle back as to why private schools have been open for the wealthy and privileged for quite some time?
    “State and local reopening plans and public health guidance have a significant impact”
    Doesn’t The State have guidelines for private school re-openings?
    How about “public health guidance” – don’t private schools have to follow those also?
    As far as “local reopening plans” …. you can make your own assessment on how that’s going.

        1. Yes since the same time as private and parochial schools. Many of them share facilities with public schools so out goes the “our buildings are out of date!” excuse.

    1. The science has been known for ages that younger students can do in person learning. Schools stayed shut because of Politics not Science.

  9. It’s incredible, the SFUSD board has shown again and again that they are utterly incapable of running the school district. Their focus on renaming schools during the pandemic was not just misguided, the execution was incompetent. The removal of academic criteria to get into Lowell was poorly executed and doesn’t solve the underlying problems. Their treatment of Seth Brenzel was offensive.

    The sooner we end the careers of Lopez and Collins the better we’ll all be. I’d like to recall out Sanchez and Alexander as well but the rules don’t allow for that at the moment.

    1. Seniors will be back for “the final few weeks” and “all seniors are being welcomed back this week”.
      What’s all this about only three days then?
      The School Board members “have been diligently working to get us back to in-person learning experiences” and it’s going to be “better”.
      Everything is fine and dandy just like cotton candy.

  10. Whenever I read about the School District’s “decision making processes”, visions of the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup invade my thoughts.

    I did some consulting work with the District years ago. Their main problem is that they flit from one buzzword program to another, year after year after year. I liken it to not being able to decide what you want to be when you grow up.