Preventing Community Spread of COVID-19 Crucial in Return to Schools, Union Leader Says

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John Muir Elementary in San Francisco in 2016.

Some students are headed back to classrooms in April, under an agreement between the San Francisco school district and unions. The youngest students are going back first, in a hybrid schedule that will expand in-person learning through the month. The reopening plan includes safety measures to protect against COVID-19, such as ventilation, cleaning, masking and spacing out desks. Meanwhile, teachers are now eligible for the vaccine. 

Susan Solomon, president of the United Educators of San Francisco, a union representing teachers and other non-administrative school staff, told “Civic” about some of the union’s priorities for safety measures and how the negotiations unfolded.

The main goal, Solomon said, was to keep everyone safe from infection, including the families of students and staff.

“We had to look at community spread,” she said, including the possibility of spread not just between people in classrooms, but between them and loved ones they interacted with at home.  “That was very important to us, that we not just protect ourselves, but protect our communities as well.” 

Determining what exactly would qualify as safe was made difficult by changing state guidelines.

“It was really confusing to see plans change. And in fact, at one point, the San Francisco Department of Public Health adopted guidelines that differed from California DPH. And were less strict,” she said.

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After negotiations, the union and district agreed to a plan that included only sending school workers back into classrooms while San Francisco was in the red, or second-worst, tier of infection rates if vaccines were available and accessible to them. In the orange tier, where San Francisco is now, staff will return even without vaccines.

“That was something that had not been in place, I think anywhere else in California, until that happened here in San Francisco,” Solomon said. “Some of the proposals that we made that initially the district was rejecting became part of the guidelines for health and safety in schools in California. We were just a little ahead of the curve.”

On Thursday, after Solomon’s interview, a San Francisco Superior court judge denied City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s request for an emergency court order to compel the school district to reopen all public schools, which would be an acceleration of the district’s current plan.

“While we’re heartened that at least some students will have the opportunity to go back to school next month, it is still unacceptable to have no real plan for middle and high school students,” Herrera said in a statement. “We swung for the fences in seeking this court order because San Francisco families deserved it. We came up short, but the case is not over. We’re evaluating all of our legal options going forward.”

Solomon, for her part, was disappointed that the city took the step of trying to sue the district into opening faster. 

“I was so dismayed,” she said. “That is not a way to solve the problem of how to make schools safe and healthy. And we were already in intensive bargaining with the school district all along.”

The negotiations and the calls for safety measures don’t mean that educators don’t want kids back in school, Solomon said. 

“I don’t disagree that students need to be in school. Full time that is what would be best. We also need not to be dealing with a pandemic and an economic crisis, there are many things we need. But there’s still such a level of unpredictability with COVID,” she said. “What we are saying is, we have to be prepared for that. And we have to be prepared for what we’ll do.”

A segment from our radio show and podcast, “Civic.” Listen daily at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. on 102.5 FM in San Francisco, and subscribe on Apple, Google, Spotify or Stitcher

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