Flores Colin and her mom, Socorro, on the first day of school at Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8. Photo by Annika Hom, on Aug. 16, 2021.

Armed with backpacks and masks, students across the city embarked Monday with both excitement and some anxiety about Covid-19’s Delta variant on their first full day of in-person learning since March, 2020. 

“She said she’s nervous about covid. She’s only six, and so she can’t get her shot, but she’s very aware of it,” said Aquilla, a grandparent to first-grader Aleah, who attends Cesar Chavez Elementary School.

Cesar Chavez Elementary School on the first day of the 2021-22 school year. Photo by Annika Hom, taken Aug. 16, 2021.

The surging Delta variant was top of mind for many parents and caregivers of San Francisco Unified School District students. Though studies show that severe cases are rare and unlikely among children, outbreaks and hospitalizations are still possible. Right now, kids under 12 can’t get immunized against covid. 

A minority of students didn’t show up. Seven hundred students who applied to the school district’s online-learning program have been admitted to it, said district spokeswoman Laura Dudnick. The rest of the district’s 52,000 students have returned to in-person classes today, she said. 

The pandemic protocols remain: Masks must be worn at all times by students and staff and, by Sept. 7, all district staff and teachers must be vaccinated. Until then, unvaccinated staff must test for Covid-19 weekly. 

Aquilla, too, is worried about returning to classrooms. “I work for the Giants, and have for 21 years. I see a lot of people come through.” 

The start time at Everett Middle School was 9:30 a.m., but as early as 8:40 a.m., children, along with their parents and guardians, would periodically flood the entrance.

Esther Fensel, the principal, said all 600 children are coming back to the building: Student numbers are at pre-pandemic levels.

Teachers ensured all rooms were properly ventilated with windows and doors open, she said. This time around — unlike last semester, when only around 100 students were on site for in-person schooling — social distancing is not a priority.

“Instead, it’s about masks and ventilation and encouraging as many kids who are eligible to get vaccinated,” she said.

In the event of a positive covid test, the San Francisco Department of Public Health will coordinate with the San Francisco Unified School District, which would coordinate with the site principal.

“It’s honestly pretty surreal,” Fensel said of the reopening. “But our staff has been preparing for this for a long time, and so we’re really excited.” 

At Buena Vista Horace Mann, the students who arrived before the 9:30 a.m. start time clustered around the blacktop and chatted with friends. Those still waiting to get in lined up along a chain-link fence decorated with a giant red heart.

Flores Colin waited excitedly next to her mom to be called in at Horace Mann; they were right at the front. The fourth grader showed off her panda backpack, and revealed that it was chock-full of items she’d need to “keep clean — soap, wipes,” she thought for a minute. “Oh … and also, my lunch bag.” 

Colin couldn’t wait to see her friends, she said in Spanish, but the rest of the day was a mystery. “All I know is that [my classroom is] supposed to be on the third floor,” she said with a dramatic sigh.

Others were thinking more about friends than getting sick. Nearby, Mani, 10, appeared cool and collected in his hoodie. “I’m pretty happy to come back to school,” he said. He, like countless others, was most excited to see his friends at recess, which promised several possibilities of fun. “I mean, they like to play football. … I like to do that, too,” Mani decided. Then again, “I like to play on the play structure.” 

Hitting the books again thrilled others, like fifth-grader Aedan D’sa, who arrived in style on his Razor scooter. “We’re probably going to finish where we left off,” he said, then rapidly rattled off examples: “Long division, addition, subtraction, multiplication, fractions, and polygons.” D’sa giggled. “Math is pretty much my favorite, other than reading, but that doesn’t count as a subject.” Right now, he’s reading a tale about a new kid at school who dreams of being a prankster, The Next Great Paulie Fink.

It’s a big day for parents, too. For Miana Saucer, a parent with two children whose ninth-grader is attending Mission High School for the first time today, it’s been a juggling act — and one she shared with her older daughter.

Saucer’s ninth-grader, she said, has been her everything. Her partner — her children’s father — passed away years ago. So, her older daughter has often helped care for the younger child.

“She’s been a part of being a big sister,” Saucer said. 

A single mother, she installed motion-sensor cameras in her home early in the pandemic so she could watch her children while working several blocks away at the Haight Street Market, now Gus’s Community Market.

She connected the cameras to her cell phone and clipped it onto her pants, and while she worked, her phone’s vibrations signaled movement in the household, indicating if she needed to check in.

review the district’s first in-person stint from april:

For Ana, 71, the closures have left her caring for her grandchild during school days.

Ana’s daughter died in November, 2019, and she has since cared for her daughter’s son, who’s entering the sixth grade. It’s his first day at Everett Middle School.

Ana has a weekly job as a cleaner, and when she works, her other daughter will watch her grandson. 

With classrooms reopened, she plans to use her time continuing to pursue her master’s in theology at Escuela Latinoamérica de Estudios Teológicos to become a Christian counsel.

Aleem, a public defender for the City of San Francisco, snapped a photo of his twin children Yasmeen and Azeeza, who were seated on a bench at Buena Vista. “You can leave,” they told him. “No adults allowed.”  

Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 on the first day of school. Photo taken by Annika Hom, Aug. 16, 2021.
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Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused on local news and immigration. She is a proud Chinese and Filipina American. She has a twin brother that (contrary to soap opera tropes) is not evil.

Follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaHom.

David Mamaril Horowitz

David’s one of those San Francisco natives who gets excited whenever City College is mentioned. He has journalism degrees from there and San Francisco State University, graduating from the latter in May 2021. In college, David played five different roles as an editor at student news publications and reported as an intern for three local newspapers, mostly while waiting tables at the Alamo Drafthouse. His first job was at Mitchell's Ice Cream.

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