The first day back at John O'Connell High School after December holidays. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan

On the first day back from the winter break, San Francisco schools struggled to return to normal, as an omicron surge has the city strained to provide sufficient Covid-19 testing resources. Schools across the district saw staffing shortages and worried parents. 

District spokeswoman Laura Dudnick said that 400 out of the district’s 3,600 teachers were absent today for the first day back at school — more than 10 percent. 

At Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8, principal Claudia DeLarios Moran said that nearly half of her staff was absent today, an unprecedented number. “The real problem is, the reason we’re in this horrible crunch, is because we’re not getting substitutes. So we only have two substitutes, out of 23 vacancies,” she said. 

“We are actively recruiting substitute teachers as we don’t have enough substitutes to meet the number of absences,” Dudnick said. To make ends meet, credentialed teachers who serve other roles are being pulled in to cover classes. 

And those being called upon to substitute are often those who provide extra support to students who need it. Librarians, counselors and even other employees of the San Francisco Unified School District are lending their support to keep classes running, DeLarios Moran said, but this is not sustainable. 

“So we are holding it together. But it’s very, very hard,” DeLarios Moran said. “We’re keeping our community safe, but it’s at the expense of our most vulnerable students.”

And, with rising case rates, many students also stayed home for the first day of school, either because they tested positive or just to be safe. 

“Our attendance rates [today] are significantly lower than normal,” said DeLarios Moran. She said the school’s phones were ringing “off the hook all morning” with calls about students testing positive or parents simply concerned about sending their children back to school amid a covid surge. The school is in need of all the essentials, she said: masks, testing and teachers. 

Yesterday, SFUSD began its first day of its “mobile rapid testing program” in partnership with the testing organization Safer Together, one day before school started, Dudnick said. 

Dudnick said more than 1,000 rapid tests were administered at SFUSD headquarters at 555 Franklin St. yesterday, and at-home rapid tests were disseminated there as well. The school district has more than 57,000 students, and it is unclear how many were actually tested before returning to school.  

Additional testing was available this morning at different sites around the city, but these sites are often inaccessible to students who live outside the neighborhood or have limited access to transportation. 

Elisabeth Moran said her 7-year-old nephew, who attends George Moscone Elementary School at 2576 Harrison St., got tested after the holidays at one of the sites the school district recommended, but said there is a need for testing on-site at the schools themselves. 

Andioneth Rodriguez, who also has a 7-year-old daughter at Moscone, said her daughter hadn’t been tested since the school provided testing two weeks ago. Since her family stayed home for the holidays, she wasn’t worried that her daughter was exposed, but was under the impression that those who traveled would receive a test. 

But this is not the case. The school district did not require or systematically provide covid tests to students returning to school today. Most of the sites the district recommended to get tested in recent days were located far outside of the Mission District. 

Grenisha Gibson, a mother of two students at César Chávez Elementary School, at 825 Shotwell St., said she’s worried about her kids coming back to school. “So I told them to keep social distance, wash their hands,” she said.

Another parent waiting for her son outside of Moscone this afternoon exclaimed that “of course!” she is worried about her child being at school right now. Her entire family gets tested regularly at Kaiser, but she said, “If the school could hold the tests inside the school, it’d be better … easier for us, the parents.” 

“We are in a crisis. And we are doing crisis response. But this is not this cannot be the new normal,” DeLarios Moran said. “We need more support. And so we will do this as long as we can, but it’s not a real solution.” 

Some private schools, meanwhile, have the resources the SFUSD is lacking. Becky Barmore, the secretary of the Synergy School, a private nonprofit K-8 school at 1387 Valencia St., said this morning that the entire school was tested for covid — all 185 students. When asked, she wasn’t sure where the testing kits came from. 

Valentina Imbeni, the principal of La Scuola, an Italian Immersion School with a campus at 3250 18th St., said the school’s protocol includes testing after travel and holiday breaks, so about 300 students were tested to be on campus today. 

But Imbeni said testing scarcity and staffing issues have affected her school, too. “We are lucky to have some [tests] left that the state had supplied, but we are quickly running out with no resources to backfill,” she said. Five of her nearly 75 local staff members were out for covid-related reasons today, but a longer-term need for substitute teachers has the school contracting with external agencies and shifting around faculty internally to meet staffing needs. 


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REPORTER. Eleni is our reporter focused on policing in San Francisco. She first moved to the city on a whim nearly 10 years ago, and the Mission has become her home. Follow her on Twitter @miss_elenius.

REPORTER. Yujie Zhou is our newest reporter and came on as an intern after graduating from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is a full-time staff reporter as part of the Report for America program that helps put young journalists in newsrooms. Before falling in love with the Mission, Yujie covered New York City, studied politics through the “street clashes” in Hong Kong, and earned a wine-tasting certificate in two days. She’s proud to be a bilingual journalist. Follow her on Twitter @Yujie_ZZ.

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  1. They owed it to the hard working kids not to ruin Lowell or hold them a year back in math and open before. They run it as a jobs program, not for the kids.

  2. I appreciate that there is so much to be concerned about. This variant is clearly highly contagious. And we must be vigilant about the safety of the entire SFUSD community. Finally, clearly SFUSD must do a better job with access to testing (for everyone , families and educators) and we need more substitutes. However, considering this is the first day, the current crisis is solely due to community spread and it is also possible that some staff stayed home because of the calls to participate in a sick out. The article did not address this. And yes, it matters too. We can not sustain this if we can not find a way to stop the spread both in the community and at school. Right now, these numbers are more about community spread. And I strongly believe that should be a part of the conversation too. Otherwise, we might as well give up now and accept schools will be closing regardless of additional testing access within SFUSD. It might come to that. But, we owe it to our children to do everything we can to prevent it. Both within schools and in the community.

  3. I don’t get why SFUSD would be handing out at-home test kits, since they do not accept the results of those kits to return kids to school after they are out sick, or exposed to CoViD.

  4. Mission Local should look into the contract SFUSD has with Color, and how it chose not to go with the State’s COVID testing help but rather work with the private company. This is why SFUSD students did not get at-home test kits prior to the winter break, but OUSD students did. This is part of why it is such a testing disaster in SFUSD, and our kids are bearing the brunt of the choice to go with a private, external contractor. Who in SFUSD is aligned with Color, I wonder? Who is benefiting from this “partnership”?

  5. Why would substitute teachers want to take the brunt of the crises when the district isnt doing its job at the top? Once everyone is tested and even vaccinated, permanent and substitute teachers will feel more comfortable about returning to work.

  6. 1. Mandatory testing for ALL SFUSD employees
    2. Too many BS jobs in Central Office, send these folx back 2 classroom

    1. UESF loves all those fake jobs at central office because they make UESF money. All those TSA jobs are chatching for UESF

    2. AMEN. Put the Administrators in the classrooms. All the problems teachers are complaining about will be solved quickly as soon as the Admins can’t hide in their offices or at home every day all day during the pandemic.

  7. 1. Most school sites do not have any N95 masks.
    2. Sounds like not many students have been tested. Many are still unvaccinated, too.

    I will be going in to work every day anyway, unless I get sick. I will scavenge for masks, even if it means begging friends to sneak some out of their better-supplied workplaces. I will NOT abandon students who show up for school–not after everything they’ve been through in the last two years.

    Why the heck does it have to be like this, though?
    Why can’t SFUSD at least provide us with some dang N95s?

    1. Because people don’t really value public school teachers whether they pretend to or not. As a former teacher, I don’t really have much respect for 75% of my former coworkers, but that is probably the right number for most workplaces I’ve been in.

      When I taught elementary school in Yuba City, Gray Ave, there was no air conditioning and five fewer fans than classrooms. Teachers spent ALOT of time scheming and stealing fans from one another. The kids just sat there overheated. Pathetic. I left teaching soon after for waaaaaaay more money and respect in construction.

      I don’t blame the teachers staying home and faking being sick or faking being afraid of getting sick (like the much better paid nurses). They know where they rank. This is a revenge of sorts. Any idealistic teacher is probably new.

    2. Yeah retail grocery workers have been doing this for 2 years and you got to jump ahead of us for vaccines. But keep patting yourself on the back. Lot’s of teachers were traveling these past 2 weeks. If you’re so afraid of the virus then when are you okay making hospitality people wait on you?

      1. Don’t know who you’re angry at, but it isn’t me. I’ve taken a total of one day off in the last three years.

        I respect retail workers, and appreciate everything they’ve done to keep everything going throughout the pandemic. I hope you’re using high quality masks now: Omicron isn’t delta, and it sure as heck isn’t original recipe COVID. If your employer isn’t providing N95s, I hope you and your coworkers organize to demand them. Please take care of yourselves–we need you!

        1. You sound like a great teacher. I wasn’t one of them. I hope the children and especially parents appreciate everything you’re doing for them.

  8. 678 days since San Francisco declared a COVID state of emergency, and this is the caliber of response we get.

  9. I feel it is clear that some parent groups, for example the ones pushing for recalls, who strongly argued for educators back in unprepared facilities during last winters surge (before ANY vaccines were available to our school communities and families) have added and compounded undue stress to this moment. The constant pressure to open schools “no matter” what the situation is, and the mantra of “it’s mild” and schools are “THE safest place to be” during this pandemic made it impossible for even the mere mention of a delayed start. Many private schools that were held up as the shining example of reopening then, clearly have access to home test kits and made choices now to delay start this week. SFUSD support staff and educators were not provided at all with mask upgrades, which could have been the slightest of measures to prevent the incredible likelihood of upcoming staff shortages due to exposure to a variant that cloth masks (and even vaccinations) don’t seem to offer much protection against. Thank you for your honest reporting on this mess. I would strongly advocate for central staff to be deployed in this crisis. What a shame common sense did not prevail here.

    1. That is actually funny that you think those fat cat fools at 555 would ever actually run a classroom. They’e busy kissing up to each other with their big salaries and titles.

    2. C’mon now. Let’s not forget, the list of reasons justifying the recall of the BoE is FAR longer than just the failure to have a plan for reopening last year (even when all other PUBLIC school districts were able to do so safely – lest you conveniently only compare to private). The school renaming debacle, yanking Lowell admissions with no community input, Alison Collins’s racism and bullying of career educators, Lopez’s immaturity and ineptness, the Board’s inability to produce a budget brought to the brink of a state takeover, multiple Brown Act violations, and no focus on or plan for improving the achievement gap we’ve seen among Black and Brown SFUSD students (aka focusing on symbols instead of substance). This recall is far from a one issue affair.

      1. I agree 100%. They oppose charters which have improved black and Latino test scores, and go strangely quiet when you mention kids of African Immigrants study over twice the hours whites do, outperform whites on tests as much as Asian American kids do, and earn over 30-50% more as adults, and that anyone can put in that effort and be successful in the US. They don’t want to raise black test scores. If they did they’d hold assemblies stressing the importance of making grades and reading and test scores the highest priority, how it virtually eliminates homelessness, crime and imprisonment and long-term poverty. They never say that. They want to keep black and Latino test scores down so they can have something to complain about, raise money they control based on it and achieve nothing but jobs and contracts for donors and people they deem worthy, and advance their careers. They never look at low scores and think kids could study more, parents could help more, we could have more charters, we could hire tutors. They just blame society and ask for money to mis-spend. They’ve had increases double inflation for over 10 years and haven’t raised black or Latino test scores. They express no interest in doing so. Parents mention African achievement in Board meetings and the board ignores them. They see Asians as collaborators and an inconvenient minority rather than a great example of America’s fairness and a proven way out of poverty for anyone, and I do mean anyone, there are nationalities of every race that outperform whites. Whites are not very high on test scores and any group that makes education a priority will beat the US white average easily assuming whites don’t make the changes they also should, studying 15 hours a week. The current white average is under 6, with over 40 on TV, games, and social media. This school board is clueless. They are not focused at all on raising black and Latino test scores. They enable kids to enter and stay in poverty by blaming others when the school board should provide leadership to kids to have a brighter future by having a little less fun and a lot more focus now. Any good parent does the same.

    3. San Francisco was the only city in the biggest 25 to not open within 11 months and it took 17. SF didn’t rush to reopen. Rich people’s kids, Newsom in private, suburbs, were in school after 4-5 months. Your comments are crazy talk. We need a school board who will stand up to the union, not obey it. In 2000 billions was sent to accommodate Covid and no one took a salary cut, even though working from home, 95% would be the equivalent due to saved commute/lunch/dress costs. Then SFUSD lost much revenue because they drove half the middle class out of SFUSD because they made one of the best schools in the US lottery instead of merit, accusing Lowell of racism even though any kid of any race who works 20 hours a week on homework would easily get in and most choose not to to have more fun, held half the kids a year behind in math, and tried to insult our nation by renaming 44 schools including those named after our 5 highest rated Presidents. They also had no sports. Children were damaged; adults coddled. Be honest. We need a school board who puts children first, teachers second, and political gamesmanship last.

  10. This is serious and should be taken seriously but Claudia DeLarios Moran is ALWAYS in a crisis. That’s what she does. So. Yeah.

    1. 609 hundred teachers out and no subs is not something to be alarmed about? Sounds like a personal beef.