by Daphne Young
After a week of negotiations, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) and various unions, including the United Educators of San Francisco (UESF), have reached an agreement over health and safety conditions for teachers, students and staff at SFUSD school sites.
“I’m grateful to our labor partners for their work in ensuring we can continue to support students where we know they learn and thrive best – in school,” said SFUSD Superintendent Dr. Vincent Matthews.
It’s been a grueling return to school after the winter break, especially for educators.
“We have seen approximately 400 teachers absent most days last week,” said Laura Dudnick with SFUSD. “On Thursday there were about 600 teachers absent, despite the fact that the average daily attendance for students was approximately 83 percent.”
Keep in mind, SFUSD has about 3,600 teachers in total. So, hundreds of teachers being absent has taken quite a toll on California’s sixth largest district.
But fortunately, SFUSD and the unions reached an agreement late last week that’s intended to keep all schools and district facilities open for safe, full in-person instruction through July 31, 2022. And hopefully this will better assist educators who are on the frontlines during this ongoing pandemic.
“Educators and all school workers have been keeping our schools and communities safe in the midst of incredible challenges,” said Cassondra Curiel, president of the United Educators of San Francisco (UESF). “This agreement with SFUSD will provide the necessary testing, masks and COVID sick leave to provide for safe schools now,” Curiel added.
“We are glad to be able to provide additional sick leave in recognition of our employees’ ongoing commitment to the health and safety of our school communities,” Matthews said. Last year the state of California provided school districts with additional funding to provide COVID-19 Supplemental Paid Sick Leave; the state did not continue this funding for the current school year.
As part of the new agreement, SFUSD will also provide high quality face masks to students and staff. Last week SFUSD distributed over 73,000 KN95 masks for school staff, equal to more than a one-month supply.
Weekly testing was another hot button during negotiations. And the new agreement affirms that the district will continue to offer weekly testing. Plus, SFUSD will increase pick-up dates and times to include every site every day.
District leaders say SFUSD has been providing weekly testing for all students and staff at every site, and Color PCR testing (Color is a company that offers COVID-19 testing, screening and vaccine management for large populations) continues to be available for all students and staff at school sites. Last week SFUSD delivered more than 46,000 Color PCR tests to school sites, with even more being distributed to schools this week.
The district is also distributing over 60,000 at-home test kits to K-12 students along with tens of thousands of KN95 and surgical masks. These new efforts, combined with safety protocols as well as school-based and mobile testing sites, are part of the district’s ongoing efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19 while keeping schools open for in-person learning.
“I want to express my sincere gratitude for everything that SFUSD staff are doing. This is the most difficult time our public schools have seen in over a century, and we must work together to serve our children and families while living with COVID,” said SFUSD Superintendent Dr. Vincent Matthews. “I also want to thank our City agencies and the business community – everyone is lending a hand to keep schools as safe as possible so our students can learn in person.”
“I want to express my sincere gratitude for everything that SFUSD staff are doing. This is the most difficult time our public schools have seen in over a century, and we must work together to serve our children and families while living with COVID,” said SFUSD Superintendent Dr. Vincent Matthews.
Of the over 60,000 at-home test kits that SFUSD has been distributing, most kits were received from the California Department of Public Health, with additional kits provided by the business community and the San Francisco Department of Public Health this week. According to SFUSD, within the week every student and classroom teacher will have a take-home test kit for use in the event they are symptomatic or have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive.
In addition to the Color testing program, SFUSD partnered with Safer Together to make rapid testing available to the community at select school sites and district offices throughout January.
I happened to stop by SFUSD’s main office, at 555 Franklin St. on a Sunday (Jan. 9, 2022) and the crowd was wrapped around the corner.
“We’re providing FREE rapid antigen tests to San Francisco Unified School District community members,” said Jenny Ton with Safer Together, a local public health non-profit that provides FREE COVID-19 tests and resources to San Francisco Bay Area residents.
“We have had every single site, for every day this week, being completely full,” said Ton. “We’ve had lines at every single site from the very beginning of testing until the end when we close down,” she added. “Our whole goal is to increase access and equity to testing, and to help ensure that families can have peace of mind and feel safe.”
So, if your student attends an SFUSD school or you’re a SFUSD employee, you’re eligible to get tested or pick up a rapid antigen test. Testing is also being done at SFUSD school sites. Just visit SFUSD, to find out the dates and times for testing through the end of the month. At these sites you can also learn information about getting vaccinated or boosted.
Since Sunday, Jan. 2, Safer Together, has partnered up with SFUSD to offer FREE in-person rapid antigen COVID-19 tests at various sites across the City, and they’re also handing out free rapid test kits to SFUSD staff, students, household members and employees to take home.
In the first week back after a two-week winter break, SFUSD says they administered nearly 5,000 rapid tests, processed 9,977 Color self-swab test kits and distributed 2,200 at-home test kits.
SFUSD is working on continuing rapid testing into February and possibly adding additional sites. Also, this week SFUSD is distributing over 60,000 at-home test kits. By the end of this week, every student and classroom teacher will have a take-home test kit for use in the event they are symptomatic or have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive.
“SFUSD is operationalizing one of the largest COVID-19 testing efforts in San Francisco,” said Matthews. “The district has made reliable testing regularly available to students and staff since last spring. Color PCR testing continues to be available for all students and staff at school sites.”
Meanwhile, union leaders say they plan to hold SFUSD accountable and will be in close contact with members to ensure that the masks and tests are consistently available as agreed to.
“We are pleased that we were able to reach an agreement with the district that will make our schools safer for students, staff, educators and our entire communities during this unprecedented surge of COVID,” said SEIU 1021 SFUSD Chapter President Rafae Picazo. “It’s critical that school workers be able to stay home when they are sick without losing their ability to pay their bills, and the agreement that we’ve worked hard to reach will allow this – making all of us safer, so teachers can teach, our students can learn and our schools can stay open.”
Leaders at the district pledge that masks and PPE will continue to be provided to school sites and say SFUSD will continue to follow federal, state and local public health guidance. Plus, the business community and City are working with SFUSD to procure more KN95 and KF94 masks so the district can keep staff equipped with daily access to these types of masks, especially those who are working directly with children in group settings. In addition to the KN95s, SFUSD is distributing over 650,000 youth and adult surgical masks and encouraging double masking per public health guidance.
This week Mayor London Breed announced the City would be donating an additional 150,000 KN95 masks for staff and 500,000 surgical masks for students.
“We want our staff and students to stay home if they are sick and to follow the public health guidance,” said Matthews. “Even as cases soar, we are committed to keeping schools open for those who can be there. In-person learning offers the best form of instruction for our students.”
The superintendent added, “In spite of the pandemic, our schools continue to be places where students receive free and nutritious meals, where they learn how to play an instrument and get involved in a sport, where they have their curiosity sparked and find joy in learning and where meaningful relationships are formed.”
Both the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) and the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) support students being in the classroom versus at home and have set up multiple layers of health and safety protocols to help keep schools open this year, despite COVID-19.
“We must do everything possible to keep students safely attending schools,” said San Francisco Health Officer Dr. Susan Philip. “The mental health impacts on students due to social isolation far outweigh the challenges of in-person learning.”
Currently, COVID cases are rising three times faster than during the summer Delta-fueled surge and further rapid increases are expected. As of Dec. 21, 2021, San Francisco’s COVID-19 seven-day average case rate was 398, surpassing the peak average during the Delta surge. While the hospitals currently still have ample capacity, the rate of hospitalizations has also started to increase but so far remains low compared to last winter.
“We do not want to wait until it’s too late to implement these measures to better protect our community,” said San Francisco Director of Public Health Dr. Grant Colfax. “As COVID-19 becomes endemic, we need to ensure everyone eligible gets vaccinated and boosted, we sustain our hospital capacity, and protect the most vulnerable – these updates to the Health Order help us achieve that.”
During the Christmas holidays, in response to the sharp increase of COVID-19 cases driven by the rapidly-spreading Omicron variant, Mayor London Breed and San Francisco Health Director Dr. Grant Colfax announced updates to the Safer Return Together Health Order.
Major changes include: 1) the City’s alignment with the state to require boosters among workers in healthcare and high-risk settings – as well as some additional higher-risk settings not covered by the state requirements – by Feb. 1, 2022; 2) a temporary suspension of the indoor universal mask exemption that allowed removal of masks for stable groups of 100 percent fully vaccinated individuals in certain settings; and 3) a requirement that attendees and staff of indoor mega-events are up-to-date on COVID-19 vaccinations, including boosters if eligible, starting Feb. 1, 2022.
“I appreciate this guidance from our public health experts on the importance of keeping our students safely in the classroom.” said Mayor London Breed. “We know how hard the last two years have been on our kids, and we need to focus on what’s best to support them, while also putting policies in place to ensure that everyone in our schools is protected.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recently announced its support for an additional valuable tool in school settings as part of its layered prevention strategy rolled out, called Test to Stay. The new test combines contact tracing and COVID-19 testing that is repeated at least twice during a seven-day period to allow asymptomatic school-associated close contacts who are not fully vaccinated and do not test positive for COVID-19 to continue in-person learning. But experts add that students who participate in Test to Stayshould also consistently and correctly wear masks while in school and should stay home and isolate themselves if they develop symptoms or test positive for COVID-19.
The state of California also recently announced that workers in healthcare and certain other high-risk settings must receive a booster by Feb. 1, 2022. San Francisco’s revised order conforms to the updatedState Health Order and extends the booster requirement to other designated higher-risk settings that are already covered by San Francisco’s previous requirements for personnel in those settings to receive their full initial series of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Also, personnel working in high-risk settings who are eligible for a booster and have not yet received one must be tested once or twice a week for COVID-19 (depending on the setting) and provide proof of a negative test until one week after they receive a booster. Due to the threat Omicron poses to hospital capacity, eligible personnel in high-risk settings are strongly urged to receive their booster as soon as possible before the deadline.
“Our residents have shown time and time again that they understand the importance of protecting public health,” said Mayor London Breed. “Thanks to our high vaccination rates, we are in a much better place than last winter, but there is real danger out there for those who are unvaccinated,” Breed added. We will continue to focus on taking the steps necessary to deal with this latest surge of cases, while also keeping our businesses open and keeping our kids in school, which is so important for our young people and their families. Do your part and get yourself and your family boosted so we can all continue to protect each other in the weeks and months ahead.”
Health officials say when rates of COVID are high in our communities, cases will appear at schools, just as they do in other settings. However, with effective health protocols in place, data shows that these multiple layers of defense can stop the spread of COVID in school settings. So, getting vaccinated and boosted, testing after travel and gatherings, staying home when sick and wearing well-fitted masks are key elements to keeping schools open for in-person learning.
Getting vaccinated and boosted, testing after travel and gatherings, staying home when sick and wearing well-fitted masks are key elements to keeping schools open for in-person learning.
“San Francisco has remained vigilant and beat back four surges, and we are well positioned with a highly vaccinated population to do the same with this current surge due to Omicron,” said San Francisco Director of Public Health Dr. Grant Colfax. “Throughout the pandemic, San Francisco schools have remained low-risk settings by following proper safety protocols – let’s work together to keep it that way.”
In relation to schools, the updated Health Order also clarifies that based on the demonstrated effectiveness of measures that reduce the risk of transmission in school settings, including the requirement for universal masking indoors, the use of rapid testing, and vaccinations for children age 5 and older, the health officer strongly believes that schools can and should remain open for in-person classes for all grades. The order strongly recommends that teachers, staff and administrators in K-12 schools be up to date on vaccination, including boosters, and the health officer will be updating school and youth-related directives to require masks for participants in indoor youth sports, through Jan. 31, 2022.
Updates to the Health Order will be available at https://www.sfdph.org/dph/alerts/coronavirus-healthorders.asp.
Meanwhile, SFUSD and the SF Public Health Department are urging families and schools to continue following recommended protocols to keep schools, students, teachers and staff safe.
Safer Return to School Recommendations include:
○ All students and staff are recommended to get tested for COVID-19 regardless of vaccination status one to two days before returning to school or work, even if they are asymptomatic.
○ If families or staff have traveled over the holidays, SFDPH recommends testing three to five days after returning from travel.
○ If any students or staff test positive, please notify your school immediately and follow isolation and quarantine guidelines, which can be found at https://www.sfdph.org/dph/COVID-19/Isolation-and-Quarantine.asp. Individuals who need assistance with isolation can connect with the COVID Resource Center at 628-217-6101.
○ COVID-19 testing sites and resources are listed at https://sf.gov/find-out-about-your-covid-19-testing-options.
○ San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) specific testing resources: https://www.sfusd.edu/covid-19-response-updates-and-resources/covid-19-surveil lance-testing-students/covid-19-testing-locations-and-dates.
● Stay home when sick
○ Students, teachers and staff who have symptoms of infectious illness, such as COVID-19 or the flu, should stay home and be referred to their healthcare provider for testing and care, regardless of vaccination status.
○ Everyone who is eligible (currently age 5 and above) for a COVID-19 vaccine should get vaccinated and stay up to date with boosters (currently open to age 16 and above if enough time has passed since their initial vaccination).
○ COVID-19 vaccination sites and resources: https://www.sfusd.edu/covid-19-response-updates-and-resources/covid-19-vaccine-resources.
● Face coverings
○ A well-fitted mask that can be comfortably worn is most important.
○ Double masking is an effective way to improve fit and filtration. A close-fitting cloth mask can be worn on top of a surgical/disposable mask to improve the seal of the mask to the face.
○ Additional masking resources: https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CID/DCDC/Pages/COVID-19/Get-the-Most out-of-Masking.aspx.
The bottom line is that there are many precautionary measures that are being taken by health officials and the SFUSD to help keep schools open and help limit severe illness, hospitalizations and deaths. But, as parents and SF residents, we need to do our part as well to stay healthy and keep our kids in school and learning. Students cannot have a repeat of last years’ distance learning debacle.
Keep in mind, this Omicron variant is going around and spreading like a wildfire. So, protect yourself and your family. Everyone be well, be smart, and stay safe and healthy.
Daphne Young is the SF Bay View Education Reporter. She’s an award-winning reporter who’s worked in radio and television from coast to coast (Chicago, New York, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami, Las Vegas and now San Francisco). The Chicago native began her journalism career as an intern at the Chicago Daily Defender newspaper. Daphne has received honors from the Society of Professional Journalists, the New Jersey Associated Press, the Public Radio News Directors Inc., and the New York Association of Black Journalists. Daphne attended San Francisco State University and is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Daphne also previously worked for SFUSD as a Para Educator for Special Education students at Clarendon Alternative Elementary School. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.