Interview transcript: Gabriela López

This is a transcript of an interview with “Civic” host Laura Wenus and school board member Gabriela López, part of our February 2022 nonpartisan election guide.Though “Civic” will broadcast only nine minutes of each commissioner’s interview to give each equal airtime on our program, we are making transcripts of the full conversations available. These transcripts have been edited for clarity.    

Gabriela López was elected as a member of San Francisco’s Board of Education in November 2018. She is an elementary school teacher for bilingual fourth- and fifth-grade students and an adjunct instructor for students seeking their master’s degrees in education or their teacher credentials. 

Laura Wenus    

So, a lot of the issues that we are seeing today, I think are worth talking about, because they’re likely to persist. For example, we are in a massive spike of COVID cases right now. I think we’re still seeing a seven-day average of case rates of more than 1,000 cases a day, which is record-breaking. And this is a totally different situation from where we were, say, in the summer of 2021, in the sense that we now have much higher vaccination rate, the district and unions just agreed on a PPE and sick leave policy, and schools have been open for a while. Can you talk about what role the board is playing in addressing school safety during the surge? 

Gabriela López   

Yeah, this is actually something we brought up months ago, specifically with the COVID Recovery Resolution that we implemented beginning in August, to prepare for this moment. And much of that was centered around access to testing, how to appropriately use masks and how to make sure that we’re offering them for our students and staff, and keeping up with the guidance that’s coming from the Department of Public Health, which is what we hope to be our guidance to make sure that we have and implement the safest protocols in schools. But the board’s work has been trying to highlight that, and make sure that we can clearly communicate to all of our staff and all of our families the work that we’re doing to keep people safe. 

Laura Wenus   

Can you talk about some of that work right now? I’m just interested in getting clarity, for folks who might not be too familiar with the inner workings of the school board, how much of an influence the school board itself has on what, day-to-day, happens in schools around COVID Safety.  

Gabriela López   

Yeah, so I think the biggest piece is actually that communication portion of sharing the information around what we are doing. And this is an issue that I’ve seen throughout my time on the board (and really with a lot of decision-making spaces): How do we deliver what’s happening at the district level to the people who are on the ground? And that’s our families and are educators. So, our work is, for a while it was guiding what our schools should be doing based off of the Department of Public Health, often adding an additional layer of safety to really make sure that we’re taking care of everyone while they’re learning in person. And then making sure that that same information gets down to the people who need it the most, which is every single one of our school sites.  

A lot of my work on the board has been actually being on the ground, talking with families, talking with schools, hearing how we’re delivering these supplies. And then when they’re reached at school sites, how it’s dispersed to all of our students and all of our families. You know, even last week, I was at our warehouse, taking a look at all of the supplies that are going to school sites, and part of that work meant packaging everything. So, what we see at the board level is, we want to make sure masks, tests and cleaning supplies are available at schools. What I then see at the ground level is all of that being organized and delivered to school sites. And then much of our work, that means connecting with our constituents, the people who are at schools, to make sure that what we say is actually happening and where we can improve throughout our time on the board to make sure that that communication and that is actually continuing. 

Laura Wenus   

I’m glad that you brought that up that you were actually out and about and like taking a firsthand look at you know what was being distributed — you have also been in close communication with parents. What is your sense of where students and parents and teachers are at, in terms of how safe they feel right now? 

Gabriela López   

I will say, my closest connection is the Latino community, specifically Spanish monolingual families. That is the community I served as an educator when I was in San Francisco schools as part of the community where I live. And from the beginning of the pandemic, the fear of returning to environments that are historically unsafe, when we’re thinking about our school buildings, with the idea that they’ll be protected while learning during a pandemic, it was driving so much fear in a lot of these communities. And I’m seeing this, specifically this time in the last two weeks, sort of remind me of what it was when everything first shut down, and that fear coming back.  

So, I’m in touch with families who have personally decided to keep their children home, because they don’t have access to the materials that we’re saying you need to be safe. And if schools aren’t providing it, then it’s even less likely they’ll be able to safely return to these environments. I’m hearing from some families, some educators who think it’s best to kind of just shut down for two weeks, and really get to a place, overall, where the cases are lower again. We can feel good about going back after taking some time away, and then breathe, start the school year, adding on weeks at the end of the school year to make up for it, but sort of ensuring that safety before we go back.  

And then I hear from a lot of our educators who are really committed to continuing to do their work, to continuing to meet in person and provide what they can. But the realities that I understand as a teacher as well is: This entire time, being able to provide consistent, effective, engaging work in our classrooms when there’s a student who’s absent three out of the five days, or there are students who haven’t come back since our winter break, it’s hard to be able to do this work thoughtfully while battling the very real fears that our families are having. And then balancing students whose families are able to kind of work through this, who really do want to be in person because they didn’t like the virtual learning experience. So our work right now is really, how do we hold all of these emotions around learning, and different perspectives and understandings, and experiences and still provide adequate education, which is our number one job as a school district? It’s our only job. 

Laura Wenus   

Yeah. I know that this is a somewhat difficult question, given how much controversy there has been over this, but given all that you’re hearing, do you think that the best move right now during this surge in cases is to keep schools open? 

Gabriela López 

Yeah. It’s interesting, because I was actually asked this question yesterday. And I’m a person who wouldn’t ask anyone to do something that I wasn’t willing to do. And I will say, from the beginning of this work, if I were to be asked as an educator to be in a classroom to work through and learn through all of the information we’re getting, I would have done it. Just like the number of educators who are telling me today they also want to. So, in my work, and just in my own personal choices, I don’t want our schools to be closed again, because I don’t think that it’ll change the responses and reactions we’ve been getting. I think that’s primarily a city issue. I think it’s a district issue. I think it’s a lack of preparation in order to ensure safety so that we can do the work that we’re set out to do. So, I wouldn’t encourage that. I understand why people think it’s the move that we need right now, but I also know with educators and working alongside them that we all want to make sure that doesn’t happen — that we don’t shut schools down. What we need is to provide all the materials to help people feel safe. And that’s what we’ve been working on and we just need to continue to increase it. 

Laura Wenus   

Would you say that is a generally fair way to predict how you will approach any potential future surges in COVID as well? 

Gabriela López   

That’s a good question. And I wouldn’t say that because it’s so hard to figure out what’s going to happen with any of the variants, with any upcoming surges. There are things that we may be able to prepare for. There are things that you’d never know. So, just like when this first went down, we took action immediately, and responded in the best way we thought we could. I would take that same approach. I’m not saying never, but if we can prepare, if we can provide, and continue this process watching cases go down, then I think we’ll be in a good place. 

Laura Wenus   

Let’s switch to a different difficult topic. One of the other problems this past year has been managing a major budget deficit for the district. Toward the end of that process, there were two competing proposals for how the budget should be handled with, I think, educators in general and two members of the board specifically putting forward this proposal that kind of looked at more central and administrative spending for cuts. And district staff had developed this plan for cuts that would balance the budget, but that did require more cuts to school sites comparatively. Ultimately, the board adopted the district proposal and prevented the state from taking over the budgeting process. Which plan did you support? And can you talk about why that was and what your concerns are with the budget going forward? 

Gabriela López   

Yeah, I was the lone vote that supported the sort of educator-driven budget that was proposed by two of my colleagues. And the main reason, which I think we can all agree on, is: Our effort to protect classrooms has to be our number one priority. I believe the way this budget was approached, and sort of their reasoning why it wouldn’t be a good move to support this plan versus the one that the staff offered, is they didn’t have enough time with it. And I personally have an issue with being able to bring items up and our legal team or a district staff saying that because there weren’t enough eyes, or there wasn’t enough time, then that’s not a priority. I think, in many of these, what we’ve learned in the past two years is that everything is just keeping us on our toes all the time. So, if there’s an opportunity to really convey to the public, to share with our teachers, all our classrooms, all of our schools, that we want to make every effort we can to protect the resources that they’re getting, given the experience we’re all living through right now, then we should make that effort. And unfortunately, we didn’t push that. There were a lot of outside voices chiming in — understandably, with the fear of a state takeover — but recognizing where we stand, recognizing the people, our educators who also have connections to the state, it felt like if we just took a little bit more time, it is an exhausting world we’re living through right now, but I would have preferred at least getting our district to take a thoughtful look at the plan that was proposed versus kind of accepting this as-is and then working on it moving forward. 

Laura Wenus   

Although you were facing a pretty strict deadline, if I recall correctly. 

Gabriela López   

Yes. And this is another part of just the education that as a district and a board we need to do for the public. Because generally, our budget season is now, in January, when the governor shares the funding information through the end of June. So, this deadline was approaching sooner than we would approach any budget season, and we got that information a couple of months before that. So, there’s a lot, right? There’s a lot that happened in 2021 that we were holding. I recognize that the budget that we inherited has been met with these issues for many, many years. And now we had the opportunity to sort of reset with the zero-based-budgeting process. But again, I would have hoped that it really landed on building a budget that began with the classroom first and then leveled up. Which is pointing to sort of what the other proposal shared which is scaling back on central office positions and funding to make sure that our classrooms are protected. 

Laura Wenus   

So clearly classrooms are a priority for you. This is unlikely to be the last time that the district faces tough budgeting decisions, I think we can generally assume. And I think we can also generally assume that some of those decisions will land before the board. What are some of your priorities for programs or services that you think the school board should fight to fund or preserve going forward?  

Gabriela López   

So, that is true that actually this entire process between now and the end of June is getting back to the conversation that we left in our board meeting in December. And that means, you know, how do you make sure you fully fund a classroom space that has access to not only the academic rigor that we want for all of our students, but also access to arts, to STEM, to outdoor activities, to other cultural information and histories and ways of engaging our students that really begins in the classroom? And that means connecting with our educators, connecting with all school sites to talk about the different programs they utilize that they want to protect. And it’s pointing to the vision that this school district set out years before the members of this board were even here. So, if we have something, let that be the guide to our budget priorities. And if we’re starting from what I’ll call the bottom, which is our classrooms, and protecting all of those programs, departments, positions, with the budget that we have, that might mean that the top positions that tend to be three times a salary that an educator will make, often four or five times, might be something that’s less of a priority. But when we have these conversations, I really encourage my colleagues to think about a student’s school day. From the moment they leave their home, traveling to school, their entire school day, and after school, what is that experience that we want to make sure all of our students have? And in order to do that, we have to prioritize it in our budget. 

Laura Wenus   

We’re over time, I want to just ask you one last thing (this may not make it in), but I’m just very curious: you’ve said that you worry that this experience of being recalled might stop other people from running for the school board. Can you say a little bit about that real quick, and why that concerns you? 

Gabriela López   

I’ve named for a long time how often I’ve been targeted, harassed, threatened, and just a lot of hateful speech, just by being on the board and pushing the initiatives that I’ve led. When I think about people in a similar position of mine — young, women, Latinas, educators, not anyone with an eye on running for higher office or corporate ties, it’s just people, regular workers who really want to be in spaces to make a difference. The amount of harassment, and now with this recall the amount of negative attention that’s been added to literally anything and everything you say, is disheartening in many ways and it moves people away from the motivation that brought them to do this work. I think about myself a lot too. Just given that the numerous attacks, you know, takes a toll on people. So, just being in this space, often your family’s at risk, your own personal history and previous actions are all open and in the public eye. It’s really cause for concern, and I worry about people who would want to go through that. It’s an abusive way to serve people. And I don’t think that that’s ever been the experience of Board of Education commissioners until recent times. 

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