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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.

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“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.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

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