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Saturday, September 25, 2021

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News + PoliticsEducationIt takes a city to open the schools

It takes a city to open the schools

Testing, tracking, vaccines -- and Muni! -- have to be part of the plan, and neoliberal leadership isn't going to help.


“Bellum omnium contra omnes”

—Sign over Gov. Jerry Brown’s inner office, from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, meaning “A war of all against all”

“California Deserves Whatever It Gets”

—Don DeLillo, White Noise

COVID-19 has not been good for neo-liberal Democrats in control in California and San Francisco.

Gavin Newsom’s reliance on the private market for PPE, testing, and now vaccinations has not worked out well for him at all.  His failure to master the art of basic governance, as shown by the horrendous and persistent failure of the unemployment and prisons departments, two uniquely public-sector functions, and the failure to address the needs of state-licensed nursing home residents and their staffs, reveal the depths of his incompetence, bringing misery and even death to thousands of Californians. 

The public schools can’t open without a functioning Muni system.

None of this is a shock for those of us who had to live through his “performance” as mayor and saw him bungle both the challenge of homeless San Franciscans (with failed Care Not Cash followed by the absurd and wildly ineffective Sit-Lie) and the Great Recession of 2008 which saw him adopt Obama-Era “austerity” polices that slashed health and human service funding, but maintained police budgets while refusing to raise business taxes and then bragging about it up and down the state as he ran for a statewide office he said he never wanted.

His school reopening proposal — as usual, devised behind closed doors and released in an apparent effort to overcome his rapidly declining poll numbers — fell faster than his hairdo on a rainy day as teachers, educators, and legislators quickly opposed it.

What was always disheartening was his ability to persuade liberal and progressive voters that he was somehow on their side just enough to get them to vote for him. That seems to be changing with new polls indicating that voters, disappointed at his inability to meet the challenges of the pandemic, find his “leadership” unacceptable. 

Mayor London Breed, sharing Newsom’s neo-liberal view that the most government can do is facilitate the market through opposition to business taxes and repeated proposals for de-regulating land-use controls to speed market-rate housing development that displaces low-income San Franciscans, has to date escaped cratering poll numbers.  

While it is true that Breed ‘s endorsement for supervisor and district attorney (both here and in LA) is the “kiss of death” for candidates, undermining her ability to create a “team” and enable her to enact meaningful policy changes, we do not know what voters think about her as no recent polls have been made publicly available on her performance during the pandemic.  

What is clear is that as the pandemic continues, Breed has become more and more combative, attacking first the Board of Supervisors, then the district attorney and now the San Francisco Unified School District.  Her bizarre position on the use of shelter-in-place (SIP) hotels, setting eviction dates in the midst of the spike in infections then backing down, claiming insufficient funds when federal funds were available, and in her “mobile” position on tent encampments—yes in city camps, no on the streets, a distinction many in her base fail to recognize—reveals her long standing position on homeless San Franciscans is not so much “tough love” as simply “tough anger.”

Her immediate support for the city attorney’s suit against the leadership of the San Francisco Unified School District is simply the latest example of Breed’s unfortunate preference to blame others.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s suit, unprecedented in the history of the city and perhaps the nation, lays the failure to open public schools solely at the feet of the SFUSD.  While the suit cites the attention paid to the admissions policies of a single high school and the renaming of scores of others it argues that the School Board only has “a plan to make a plan” for re-opening our public schools.

It is staggeringly unfair and a misrepresentation of the facts to claim that the School Board—or even worse, teachers—alone are responsible for this state of affairs. Certainly, Breed’s speedy “me-too” finger-pointing may earn her some short-term political advantage, but it ignores her administration’s role in contributing to the problem, which will postpone corrective action.

San Francisco public schools cannot be opened without:

1) a rigorous regime of testing and contact tracing;

2)  a predictable and widespread vaccination program (not just for teachers but students and their families and communities);

3) and, uniquely for San Francisco, a functioning public transit system. 

None of these prerequisites are under the control of the Board of Education. All are directly under the control of the mayor.  What the School Board needs is criticism for is their failure to publicly demand all three.

What is the Breed Administration’s record on these three key issues?

The city’s failure at establishing accessible testing and contact tracing programs

The gold standard for rapid testing — and therefore effective contact tracing — is a free test, offered at an accessible, drop-in location, and rapid results reporting. Every NBA, MLB and NFL franchise has managed to do this, but it has eluded the abilities of “tech savvy, innovative” San Francisco and its executive leadership.

Even after the Warriors, in a plan from a moonlighting UCSF epidemiologist, showed how as many as 9,000 tests could be administered on game day, allowing COVID-free entrance into Chase Area, the incurious Breed administration simply turned down the request without seeking a joint action with the Warriors (or UCSF) on how that testing regime might be applied to everyday San Franciscans.

After 11 months, the City and County of San Francisco, the health-care capital of the Bay Area, has ONE free  testing site open seven days a week to any San Franciscan. One. It’s at Pier 30/33 and is currently only accepting appointments made three days in advance. There are six other free drop-in testing sites that are not open on the weekend. The other eight free testing sites are by appointment only and open only on weekdays.

The other 16 testing sites are by appointment only for insured San Franciscans. The Department of Public Health website does mention “limited mobile testing resources” but does not mention their capacity or whether they are available for school sites.

As of 4 February 2021, according to Data SF, San Francisco has conducted 1.3 million “cumulative tests” with a 3.11 percent “positivity” rate. But trying to find out how many discrete individual San Franciscans have been tested as opposed to how many of the same folks have been tested again and again is impossible.

We know that health care workers and first responders are tested multiple times but what portion of that 1.3 million tests are repeaters, we don’t know. What we DO know is that large portions of the city test nearly three times the positivity rate as the “citywide” rate.

We also know that pop-up testing sites in the Mission often report 10 percent or more positive tests, as reported with bulldog determination by Mission Local.  

We do know that there are, on average 6,600 tests administered in San Francisco per day. There are 56,000 students in the SFUSD in 160 locations throughout the city with 5,300 paid teachers and an equal number of administrative staff, janitors, para-professionals, etc., for a total of some 70,000 or so folks.

The DPH directive for reopening schools requires that these 11,000 or so “school-based adults” be tested before they come to work and then once every two weeks. It requires that if a positive test occurs the SFUSD staff be responsible for the initial contact tracing. These tests would mean that the entire testing capacity of the city would be devoted four days a month just for the SFUSD teachers and staff with not one student tested.

No guidance seems to be offered for testing of students.  But we know that two private high schools are in fact proposing regular testing of their students. Urban will require each student be tested twice a month and University will require each student be tested once every two months.  If San Francisco’s 23 high schools adopted similar standards—and why not, many parents will argue—the current testing capacity of the city could be overwhelmed.

Both of these private schools have contracted with private health care providers to do the testing.  It is doubtful that SFUSD could afford to do so in which case the testing may well be done by DPH’s own lab.  The problem is that that lab, in state’s report covering tests administered in January, had one of the worst turnaround rates of any COVID test lab in the state with fully 62 percent of the tests taking two to four days for results making contact tracing much more difficult.

The challenge of vaccinations

We are very early days in the vaccination process, but so far California ranks at near the bottom of getting “shots in the arms” and San Francisco is not breaking the state mold, other than for opioids—in which we are number one.

Needless to say, if the city has yet to put together a robust testing and tracing program it has not done so either for vaccinations. 

While both the state and the national administration is arguing that vaccinations are not critical for teachers and other “school-based adults,” it’s critical that the neighborhoods our students come from receive vaccinations as soon as possible.

The last successful mass public health vaccination program, the Salk vaccine for polio, was administered at public schools. It would be a great day to have our public schools again being the center of a widescale community vaccination program.

The point here is that this is far beyond the control of the SFUSD and will be the crucial test of the Biden administration (and the democratic wing of the Democratic Party).

No public schools—hell, no San Francisco—without public transit

Perhaps the most glaring failure of the neo-liberal Breed administration in the era of COVID is its profound inability to even articulate let alone marshal the necessary local institutional, budgetary, programmatic, and political resources to address the inevitable end of public transit as we know it.

Muni as it was in February 2020 will, quite probably, never be seen again. What does Muni look like when there is no longer the same-sized downtown workforce and all main lines that feed downtown are far over capacity? How are Muni’s lines re-configured and re-opened?  

How can people in the southern half of the city, from Bayview, through the Crocker Amazon and the Ingleside to the southern Sunset, get to and from work, school, health and social services and shopping without getting in a car?

Can Muni be made to serve “transit-reliant” resident needs and the needs of small neighborhood-based businesses as well as it once did downtown?  What is the plan to raise the $30 billion or so needed to meet the previous system’s capital and operational needs and how much and from whom will the new Muni get its funding? How does the rise of the all-electric car, including “autonomous” robots, change our streets and urban transit?

Electric bikes, scooters and cars will increase the velocity on our streets (and sidewalks) posing new challenges to “quiet streets” and “essential Muni service” now the norm once the economy comes back. There is an urban transit reckoning of fundamental importance to all San Franciscans (indeed all urban America for urban mass transit is off the tracks as a result of COVID in every major urban area and demands national resources) that the Breed Administration (or the Board of Supervisors) have neither honestly publicly described, nor prepared plans or resources to directly address.

If Breed had done either, perhaps schools would have opened earlier because in San Francisco, kids going to school, even private schools and most certainly public schools, take Muni. The SFUSD busses about 3,500  students through a $30 million a year contract with a for-profit bus leasing firm. The rest of the 25,000 who take buses to school each day ride on Muni.

MUNI’s “school trippers” service provided ten public middle schools and six high schools with extra after-school service before the pandemic.

How does the SFUSD provide that Muni service critical to 50 percent or so of its students (and an unknown number of school staff who rely on Muni) by itself? The answer is that it can’t—and we have heard nothing from the mayor, who CAN provide that service, about it even being an issue.

Can City Attorney Dennis Herrera get a court order that actually produces a comprehensive testing, contact tracing and vaccination program for the public schools AND Muni service necessary to get kids to and from school, safely and COVID free, so their parents can work? Don’t think so.

Will our elected state delegation, Assembly Members Phil Ting and David Chiu and State Senator Scott Wiener step in and provide state resources to fully reopen Muni at least enough to provide the needed service to public schools? To date, none have said so either specifically in reference to transit and public schools in their hometown or more generally about returning Muni to its former capacity.

This is an odd lapse, given the trio’s unbroken record of granting density and height bonuses and reduction of affordability requirements and local review for market-rate housing development along “transit rich corridors” defined at old Muni levels of service. Led by Wiener, these “transit-oriented development” advocates are clearly more for the “development” than the “transit,” given their thunderous silence as to re-building public transit.

As this is being written (Feb. 7), the teachers union and the SFUSD have reached at least a “framework” for opening the schools. There are serious and legitimate working conditions between teachers and administrators that must be collectively agreed to. And the parties should be respected enough by all to be given a reasonable amount of time to come to that agreement.

But it takes a city to open the schools. Staff and students come from all over San Francisco; they need testing, if necessary, tracing and vaccinations AND SO DO THEIR FAMILIES AND NEIGHBORS. We all need a functioning public transit system that is safe, accessible and swift for San Franciscans and their neighborhoods.

No lawsuit will overcome the failure of neo-liberal leadership. The real question is how we move beyond this failure. 

Without question, the people of San Francisco have so far been far ahead of their leadership in practicing mask wearing, social distancing and shelter-in-place. Now the hard part starts — and how the people of the city make our schools and public transit work is less than clear. But what seems clear is that it is up to them to show the way. 

Perhaps help will come from the Biden Administration and together federal programs combined with popular local action will overcome the stupor engulfing state and county governments.  If not, it will be a long 2021 with a potentially disastrous mid-term election in 2022. 

As the old folks say: dare to struggle, dare to win.

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  1. @Flight505 I’m confused what school outdoor space is a limiting factor for in-person learning. Today in SF, across CA and the country students are safely receiving instruction in their classrooms. Doing in-person learning does require work and money but it is doable. I also don’t understand why stating facts and science is partisan? I’m guessing that SFUSD has some schools that will need huge investments to be COVID safe and some campuses will require minimal modifications. SFUSD has failed to publish any information regarding what’s required to open a campus. I will tell you even when all the teachers and staff are vaccinated there will still be the need for COVID safety protocols and improvements in air filtration and ventilation. Given the perception SFUSD has created in terms of how they’ve prioritized COVID I’m guessing there’s a lot of work to do before we start seeing kids in classrooms. I hope I’m wrong but based on what’s been said at School Board meetings and communication from the Superintendent SFUSD is 6-8 months behind where they should be.

    As for is this a generational disaster. I don’t know how you can’t see it any other way. Sorry but comparing 1918 to 2021 in this context isn’t valid. Life moves a lot faster and the kids who enjoyed a full-year of in-person (whether full-time or hybrid) will be significantly ahead of their distance learning peers for years to come. Some kids will catch up but a lot won’t and that’s the tragedy. Compounding that tragedy is that it didn’t need to be this way. Better leadership at the Federal, State and local level could’ve gotten every child into a classroom at least a few days week starting in Sept/Oct 2020. We as a city need to hold the School Board accountable when it is time for re-election.

  2. How about dare to struggle 6 months ago or more – perhaps the day the Courts re-opened? Waxing a bit nostalgic about the neighborhood school as polio vaccine center. Will Biden’s stupor rescue us from Newsom’s stupor?
    When progressives finally see their “must have” policies as the the basis for these hurdles we can begin to unwind this mess. Author is correct to point out the phony Herrera lawsuit is a day late and a dollar short and the obvious vacuum in leadership from Room 200.

  3. So KQED reported that some private school and parochial school kids are receiving in person instruction. Did KQED report how many private and parochial school kids ARE NOT receiving in person instruction? Did it explain that some schools (for example Stuart Hall High School) only allow kids to attend in-person classes one day per week?

    Some private and parochial schools also have a public subsidy that contributes to their overall operation. City Academy (Christian), Chinese American International School’s 888 Turk Street campus, and San Francisco High School of the Arts (formerly Xian Yun, located at 1970 Page Street), for example, do not have any on-site playgrounds or outdoor recreational areas. Playground and outdoor recreation spaces are expensive to build: they require land that is not used for classrooms, administrative offices, cafeterias, parking and other built spaces. These schools’ administrators refused to build their campuses correctly.

    Lacking sufficient or even any recreation or athletic space on campus, these schools’ students use nearby Recreation and Parks Department playgrounds and sports fields. Although the schools might have permits issued by Rec and Park for these uses, that ongoing exclusive use during certain hours is an overly generous gift from the city that takes away access from everybody else. After refusing to build correctly, these schools receive a significant operating subsidy from the public. They could be saving 50% or more on land costs by not providing sufficient outdoor space for their students.

    Because these projects were approved for initial development or expansion (unless it was an illegal conversion, as was the case with 1970 Page Street), the schools’ deliberate underinvestment in key infrastructure has been deemed okay by Planning and other city departments involved in the projects. That is a large give away of public goods to private and substantially unaccountable entities. They money those schools save by relying on that generous gift provides a lot of opportunity to pay for things that SFUSD schools cannot.

  4. lovehaight, You’re doing your cause no favors by trying to project a divided community as supporting your position. By the time that the SFUSD has articulated itself to handle the pre-vax covid pandemic, vaccines will be ubiquitous. You should know by now that there is nothing that any level of government in California can do in real time to respond to an ongoing crisis. Government has been repurposed to serve other needs over the past decades.

    “Generational Tragedy.” Get over yourself. My nana was born in 1918. She graduated second in her HS class in 1918 and got accepted to pre-law, amazing for a woman at that time. The Spanish flu pandemic arose that summer, and my great grandfather forbade her from going to school. Zoom did not exist at the time. Her life changed radically, she ended up marrying an attorney and parenting during the depression and WWII. The thing is that the 1918 pandemic generation did not bitch, moan and whine. They took a bad hand and played the fuck out of it and ended up persevering.

    What we’re seeing here is the play date generation that its life curated for safety and security having to face their first grand scale setback, where the play date does not go as planned. Whether parents fear sending kids to school or fear their kids so much they want them out of the house, you’re not entitled to a free smooth ride in this life. Far from perseverance porn, there is something to be said about learning from rolling with the punches life throws at you.

    Now I understand that everyone’s shit’s emotional right now. But that’s no excuse for parents to project their legitimate anxieties onto a school system that has to serve all students, unlike private schools, equally under the law, to edge in a right wing Republican narrative in the process. Breed justifiably fears a recall and is sidling up to SF Republicans in hopes they will provide her margin to stay in office.

  5. @Gorn KQED recently reported that 16,000 San Francisco private and parochial students enjoy the benefit of in-person learning. SFDPH has guidelines that provide roadmap for schools to re-open. For the students and their families this is an issue of educational equity, mental health and the emotional and physical development children. There is no defensible position for SFUSD or the teacher’s union. COVID-19 safety protocols work. The challenge is making the physical changes to school buildings, establishing the PPE pipeline, establishing new safety procedures and most importantly getting families, students, faculty, staff and administrators to follow those procedures. Yes, it is hard, I know first hand how difficult it is. I also know it is achievable. Some schools will be easier to safely open versus others. After almost a year we don’t even have list showing what’s required by campus. We’re watching a generational tragedy unfold in front of our eyes because we’re allowing hysteria and political grandstanding to take priority of children’s education.

  6. As various elected officials, self appointed spokespeople, and others argue that SFUSD has done nothing, and should have it all figured out by now, it would be nice if they thought about these few things.

    Not all private K-12 schools in San Francisco are open for in-person learning at this time, Some are open for extremely limited on-campus time for each student. The few charter schools I pass by regularly are not open. From what it says on their website, the University of San Francisco might have some in-person learning this semester. Currently, they plan to return to in-person instruction for the in the fall. City College and the CSU System are in the same boat.

    No University of California campus is open for in-person classes. Because the UC System, with all its Nobel Prize winners, Macarthur Grant recipients, and “well qualified” Regents (including Governor Newsom) has not yet reopened, perhaps the situation is more complicated than imagined by all the people spewing hot air at SFUSD.

  7. lovehaight: San Francisco has gone above and beyond state guidelines throughout the pandemic.

    Why should schools get an exemption from that cautious approach?

  8. There is absolutely ZERO facts behind this article regarding what is required to open schools. The CDC, the California Dept of Public Health and SF Dept of Public Health have all published clear, specific guidelines required to open schools. These guidelines do not require vaccines. These guidelines are not new. Importantly, there’s six-months of data from schools that have been open since September showing these guidelines work in creating a safe environment for students, faculty and staff.

    In almost a year SFUSD has failed to publish a plan as to how they will meet those guidelines. They haven’t even published plan as to the process for getting to that plan. It is a generational tragedy what is happening to students without access to in-person learning. SFUSD and the teacher’s union need to fix it now. Voters will not forget.

  9. The hard part is that San Franciscans are dependent on politically connected nonprofits that style themselves progressive (progressive as charity, not popular empowerment) to represent us against the neoliberals, but those nonprofits are dependent on neoliberals for their funding and thus economic dependence implies subordination to the neoliberals politically. One drop of neoliberal funding in your nonprofit blood and you’re neoliberal too. Calvin, supplicant to the neoliberals is hardly availed of an abundance of credibility when opposing his benefactors.

    Progressives celebrate the LTF’s efforts on sporadic testing or setting up pop up tents for vaccinations as they are paid to, while standing down on demanding the DPH adopt best practices: widespread regular testing, diligent contact tracing and isolation for those who test positive. The public sector has been so atrophied that we are dependent on these unqualified agencies to perform basic governmental function.

    Progressives have treated Muni with a hands-off posture, deferential to the contracting needs of successive Mayors, only intervening for purposes of charity, typically neoliberal means tested fare-free. This, while BRT has taken 20 years and 3x $ and time to not deliver 2 projects, ditto for the Central Subway. Where are the supes on this? Potted plants all who rarely oppose any manner of land use intensification as if they were Chiu, Wiener or Ting and leave the Muni to its own devices. Why is MTA leadership that can’t manage to restart the light rail metro in less than six months still in place? Why have supes not grilled these people out of their jobs? An inanimate carbon rod or one of those bobbing birds could produce this quality work for much less.

    I am sick and fucking tired of hearing Breed’s whiny voice on TV, getting all high and mighty and punishy as she seeks to deflect from her own epic failures onto everyone, anyone else. Breed should feel fortunate that a pandemic is on and she cannot be protested in person.

    But the root cause of the problem here is that the “progressive” political nexus of which Welch is a potentate has had decades to get its shit together politically to contest neolberalsm. But they made peace with the neolibs, took their funding and stood down on everything else.

    Calvin Welch needs to reconcile his stated, desired policies with the actions of his own political tribe. Otherwise he’s just baiting voters for the inevitable neoliberal switch.

  10. Not all neighborhoods have neighborhood schools. It is true at the elementary school level that their are options that are pretty close by. That in itself doesn’t mean they are “walkable” or you don’t need Muni to get there. Because there are fewer middle schools and high schools, a lot of kids need some way to get there without relying (only) on walking.

    My daughter’s elementary school was within walking distance of the two places we lived while she attended, though she mostly went on the back of my bike. When my wife was using crutches or a knee scooter, the 31 Balboa was a necessity if she did drop off or pick up.

    When we were looking at middle schools, we considered ones that were a single Muni line away. Everett, Roosevelt and Marina are all about the same distance from us (a bit more than a mile). Francisco, the school her elementary school feeds into and where she attends, is closer to two miles. So, yes, “you” need buses for kids to get to schools.

    Breed and Herrera (and Ting, Chiu, and Wiener) have been grabbing headlines calling for schools to reopen for in-person learning. For Herrera, it’s even “open or else ….” What they’re showing ( besides a profound disrespect for teachers and other school site employees, and a failure to admit that a large number of families self report that they are not ready to send their kids back to school yet) is a pathetically simplistic view of how returning to school will be.

    It is not only students, but also teachers, custodians, librarians, substitutes, cafeteria workers, and administrators, who need a way to get to their school sites. If the city (with support from the state) doesn’t want to or cannot yet commit to a fully functioning public transportation system, they should shut up and butt out. Breed and Herrera allege reopening is a matter of equity, but they won’t admit that Muni is a prerequisite to .equitable access in the grossly wealth-disparate “city that knows how.” Muni is also green (or greener than cars) and a tool that helps kids grow into independence.

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