San Francisco School Reopening Plan Hits Snag With Teachers Union Dispute

The city’s school board adopted health and safety guidelines for reopening schools, but a conflict with teachers over in-person instruction time could derail plans to bring kids back inside classrooms this year.

San Francisco public schools superintendent Vincent Matthews compared the school district’s proposal for in-person class time to the teachers union’s plan during a virtual press conference on Feb. 23. (screenshot)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) –– Amid clashes with labor unions and its own city government, the San Francisco school board on Tuesday advanced a key component of its reopening plan, but a dispute with teachers over in-person instruction time could delay the process indefinitely.

The school board unanimously endorsed a deal with its labor unions that will help facilitate a return to classrooms. The health and safety plan allows schools to reopen with vaccinated teachers when Covid-19 spread is considered “substantial” rather than “high” under California state guidelines. Staff would return without vaccinations if the city’s rate of Covid-19 transmission is deemed “moderate” or “minimal.”

But the district has reached an impasse with teachers over how much time educators and students should spend in classrooms. The district plans to bring back students in transitional kindergarten through second grade and students with disabilities in its first phase of reopening. For schools in which surveys indicate fewer students plan to return to classrooms, the district proposes five hours of in-person instruction, five days a week. The union proposes three hours of in-person classes four days per week and one day of distance learning. The district’s plan would provide for 25 hours of in-person class time compared to 14 hours per week proposed by the union.

“Our goal has and continues to be to maximize daily in-person instruction for students and to maintain as much consistency as possible,” San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Vincent Matthews said during a press conference Tuesday.

During the school board meeting, multiple teachers called in to voice displeasure with the school district’s proposal. Many said they felt “disrespected” and that their perspectives were “being devalued” by school district administrators. They also argued the district’s plan will result in some students losing the teachers they’ve worked with all year and getting assigned new teachers.

“We created schedules to create safety and maintain strong bonds our educators have established with our students,” middle school teacher Darcy Blackburn commented during the meeting. “Our schedules ensure students keep their teachers.”

School board vice president Alison Collins declared her support for the district’s plan, arguing that steady and reliable schedules offer greater value to students than keeping the same teacher.

“I love my daughter’s teachers and relationships are important and they are key, but what I do appreciate with this plan is it really focuses on consistency of schedule and consistency of school,” Collins said.

Earlier Tuesday, the president of the teachers union said she and her colleagues have lost faith in the school district’s ability to fairly negotiate a deal on classroom schedules.

“At this point, we believe there needs to be a trusted mediator to intervene, as we have lost confidence in the superintendent to manage this process,” Unified Educators of San Francisco President Susan Solomon said in a statement.

As for the health and safety plan approved Tuesday, school board member Mark Sanchez warned that disruptions in vaccine supply and distribution could cause delays in bringing staff back to school buildings.

Teachers can obtain Covid-19 vaccines starting Wednesday in San Francisco under a new phase of vaccine eligibility announced by Mayor London Breed earlier this month. Meanwhile, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced last week that the state will reserve 10% of vaccines for educators and child care workers starting March 1.

The district’s newly adopted health and safety guidelines will also face obstacles in court.

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera sued the school district this month, claiming its reopening plan fails to meet the standards imposed by state law. In a letter to the school district last week, Herrera argued the health and safety plan falls short of the district’s obligation to offer in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible. Citing federal, state and local public health guidelines, Herrera insisted that educators can safely teach elementary school students and vulnerable students in classrooms, even when Covid-19 spread is considered “widespread” in the community.

During Tuesday’s meeting, school board vice president Collins said the district chose to “go beyond the CDC guidance” because staff raised concerns about safety. She was referring to guidelines set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We can’t just keep changing our plans based on CDC guidance because we know it’s changing every month,” she added.

Herrera filed a motion for an emergency court order last week to compel the district to reopen schools. The city attorney cited deteriorating mental health conditions for San Francisco public school students, including a 5-year-old autistic child who “has become extremely anxious and withdrawn” and “avoids any new activities.” A hearing on that motion is scheduled for March 22 in San Francisco County Superior Court.

Also on Tuesday, several parents spoke in support of the board’s recent decision to put a controversial school renaming process on hold. Others strongly disapproved the decision and accused school renaming opponents of defending racism. The plan to rebrand schools named after people believed to have played a role in slavery, genocide and other forms of oppression was widely criticized for flawed research and lack of community input.

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