SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — San Francisco Mayor London Breed sharply rebuked the city’s school district Friday over plans to remove the names of historical and political figures from a third of its schools, saying its focus should be on reopening schools, not renaming them.
Breed said the plan, reported Thursday by the San Francisco Chronicle, shows that the district has clearly misplaced priorities. Public schools remain closed citywide despite being allowed to open since September.
“Parents are frustrated and looking for answers,” she said.
Breed said it was offensive that the school district should focus its energy on renaming some 44 public schools while parents and children struggle to learn at home during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It’s offensive to parents who are juggling their children’s daily at-home learning schedules with doing their own jobs and maintaining their sanity. It’s offensive to me as someone who went to our public schools, who loves our public schools, and who knows how those years in the classroom are what lifted me out of poverty and into college. It’s offensive to our kids who are staring at screens day after day instead of learning and growing with their classmates and friends.”
Breed said the city gave the district $15 million of the taxpayers’ money to support reopening and she expects them “to do what needs to be done to get our kids back in school.”
The San Francisco Unified School District began working in earnest over the summer to purge the names George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln from its public high school and grammar schools; Washington and Jefferson because they owned slaves, and Lincoln because of his administration’s wars with American Indian tribes which resulted in the U.S. Army’s massacre of hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapaho people.
The district board of education announced two years ago that it would form a panel to review the names of schools in the district and oversee the renaming process.
An accompanying resolution listed about a dozen schools that had been renamed in the past 30 years, including changing the name of Parkside Elementary School to honor Dianne Feinstein.
Now Feinstein’s name is on the chopping block, the Chronicle reported, because she replaced a vandalized confederate flag in front of City Hall.
District administrators sent letters to school principals last week asking that their schools give suggestions for alternative names by Dec. 18. The Chronicle reported that the school board will likely vote on name changes early next year.
But the district’s request did not sit well with Breed.
“Look, I believe in equity. It’s at the forefront of my administration and we’ve made historic investments to address the systemic racism confronting our city. But the fact that our kids aren’t in school is what’s driving inequity in our city. Not the name of a school,” Breed, who is Black, said.
“We are in a pandemic right now that is forcing us all to prioritize what truly matters. Conversations around school names can be had once the critical work of educating our young people in person is underway. Once that is happening, then we can talk about everything else. Until those doors are open, the school board and the district should be focused on getting our kids back in the classroom.”
Laura Dudnick, the public relations manager for the school district, said in an email the district understands that the timing of the renaming effort may be difficult for schools and that the district “has conveyed concerns to the advisory committee regarding the challenges of making recommendations at this time given that we are in distance learning due to the pandemic.”
The School Names Advisory Committee, appointed by the board of education in 2018, will reconvene on Jan. 6 to consider feedback from schools and draw up its recommendations to the board. The board of education will likely consider the recommendations in January or February.
“The panel has gone through a process to set standards for why the name of a school would be changed, to research to the best of their ability the backgrounds of the individuals or places that are namesakes for a school, and analyzed those under the panel’s established guiding principles. From this process, the panel generated 42 schools covering 44 campuses that it intends to recommend to the board,” Dudnick said. “As part of its recommendation, the panel intends to include at least one alternate name for each school for the board to consider.”
She said the schools are not required to provide alternate names but may do so if they choose. “The panel has sent an invitation to principals inviting them to engage the school communities in suggesting new names they would like the committee to recommend to the board of education. This process is entirely optional. If a school declines to participate, it doesn’t mean they will be excluded from the committee’s recommendations. It is at the principal’s discretion how or if to engage their community at this time.”
Dudnick also laid out the district’s plan for reopening schools. It includes doing on-site assessments of school ventilation systems and physical distancing capabilities, finding providers to conduct Covid “surveillance testing,” and negotiating with unions on returning to in-person instruction.
The district will be sharing its progress at the board’s next meeting on Oct. 20 “in an effort to make our preparations more visible to our community,” Dudnick said.
First grade teacher Jeremiah Jeffries, who serves as facilitator for the School Names Advisory Committee, said in an email to Courthouse News that the school district, the city and its residents all share in the responsibility of ensuring that schools can reopen.
“The scale of moving an additional 60,000 young people and 7,000 adults about the city safely and having a practical safety plan and infrastructure in place to do that protects the youth, educators and the public is a big endeavor, requiring even bigger resources and cooperation,” he said. “The city, school district and frankly everyday residents (by actually sheltering in place, wearing masks) will have to work together to make that happen.”
“The Mayor has been and continues to be a strong supporter of public schools and the school district. As a 1st grade teacher I feel her passion and frustration at how this pandemic has dragged and wanting more for young people and their families then what the city or school district is offering, but unfortunately this connection some people are drawing between school reopening and renaming for the Mayor and the public is misplaced and misinformed,” Jeffries added.
Jeffries also said the movement to rename schools should not be conflated with efforts to reopen.
“The school re-opening work is separate from the school renaming work. The school renaming work was initiated back in 2018, long before the pandemic and the process is just reaching the stage where the task force is seeking input from school communities about what name alternatives they would like the committee to consider,” he said.
“The school renaming process is a continuation of the fight for justice. I know educators like myself and the Mayor are on the same side of things in the fight for justice and wanting to do what we can for young people. We are not the problem. Racism and White supremacy has not taken a break and we will not either from trying to dismantle it.”