by Sophia Chupein
While the immediate danger of Covid-19 seems to be receding into the background of most of our daily lives, we will likely continue to feel the ripple effects from the pandemic for years to come. This reality is obvious to anyone involved in K-12 education. Just in the past year, San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) has had to deal with seriously understaffed schools, ridiculous payroll issues, and a complicated transition back to in-person learning. For the educators who have fought to support their school communities throughout this period, the long-term ramifications of the pandemic are glaring.
One of these educators is Michelle Cody, a sixth grade math teacher at Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School. Having worked there since the school reopened in 2015, she has had to bear witness to the shift in community mentality that came with the pandemic. When I asked her about educator burnout, she said she simply felt exhausted. Amidst the chaos during March of 2020, teachers were told they had to completely shift gears. “These lessons you’ve been doing for years, you need to flip it, rotate it, and put it on the internet. And it was like a shellshock to a lot of folks.”
San Francisco Unified School District teachers have been leaving the district in record numbers. Understaffing, pandemic-related safety issues and general underpayment are just a few of the issues that are forcing educators to reconsider their professions. On top of this, the ceaseless issues with the district’s EMPowerSF payroll system are adding yet another stressor to educators’ lives. The nearly year-long payroll issues, which sparked district-wide protests on Nov. 2, are not what most teachers had in mind when they pursued the profession.
“One national 2020 study showed that people between the ages of 13 and 19 showed increased problems with “depression, anxiety, misbehavior, social isolation, inattention or impulsivity.”
“Then you’re gaslighted with the statement of ‘self-care’ and you’re like, ‘Yeah, self-care – where am I supposed to do that? How is that supposed to happen?’ And so you self-care your way out of the career,” says Cody.
Cody mentioned that she wishes there had been a more thoughtful reintroduction to in-person learning; a period when students could readjust to being around their peers in a classroom environment before jumping back into lessons. When I asked Cody to expand on this, she made it clear that most teachers aren’t afforded the privilege of free time to think about large-scale plans like this. “I don’t have the luxury to sit and think about these things because I’m in the thick of it.”
When I asked about what this year feels like for teachers and students, Cody said this year’s students seem “squirrelly,” and that last year’s understaffing and burnout is continuing to affect the Willie Brown community. “Last year, kids were just so excited to get back into school. This year they’re just trying to figure it out and it’s hard. People are still tired … we’re tired and we’re trying.”
Malik Parker, yet another Willie Brown Middle School staff member, sees things differently. “It feels a lot more cohesive I would say … That first year back was just trying to figure out what works well, what doesn’t work … Now that we have a platform to stand on how we want to do things, it allows for us to go beyond what we were able to go past as a community last year.”
Parker works at Willie Brown as a student success coach for the 100% College Prep Institute, a San Francisco-based program that works within underserved communities to uplift students and prepare kids for college, vocational training and beyond. While his day-to-day role is stretched between a long list of different responsibilities, his main job is centered around helping students set academic, personal and social goals that will help them succeed academically and “become overall great human beings.”
It quickly became apparent that Bayview students were still at a disadvantage.
When I asked Parker about how pandemic-related stressors have impacted his students, he mentioned a lack of social capabilities. Among other social issues, Parker has witnessed physical fights between students take place on school grounds. As I’m sure most educators understand, it takes compassion and understanding to accommodate students where they’re at right now. “A year of not being around people and your brain is still developing, yeah, that’s gonna take some time.”
Still, it’s clear that Parker loves his job. One of the many aspects he admires about Willie Brown Jr. Middle School is the staff’s dedication to promoting student mental wellbeing, specifically the work of the counseling and peer resources departments.
These student misbehavior patterns at Willie Brown Jr. Middle School aren’t an isolated phenomenon. Far from it, actually. Many national studies have shown that the pandemic significantly impacted the mental health of children and adolescents. Factors like social isolation, parental stress and a lack of physical exercise have been correlated to a spike in anxiety and depression in young people today. One national 2020 study showed that people between the ages of 13 and 19 showed increased problems with “depression, anxiety, misbehavior, social isolation, inattention or impulsivity.”
A separate study found that, in children between the ages of 5 and 7 of hourly service-industry workers, pandemic-related difficulties led to an increase in uncooperative behavior. Given that this data was collected in the early stages of the pandemic, it’s probably safe to assume that these behavioral differences continue to persist in today’s students.
Cody, Parker and countless other educators found that getting students online was one of the trickiest aspects of pandemic online learning. According to SFUSD Public Relations Manager Laura Dudnick, SFUSD distributed 48,435 devices (laptops and hotspots) between March 2020 and June 2021. While 100% of students who requested a laptop received one, access was still not equal across the board. For instance, if you’re living in a multigenerational household, sufficient WiFi bandwidth and finding a quiet study area may be an impossible feat.
“I’m not from San Francisco, but this city is hella gentrified, it’s hella segregated.”
Nearly all of the educators I spoke with believe that the school district did everything it could to accommodate students at the outset of the pandemic. Still, it quickly became apparent that Bayview students were still at a disadvantage. When I brought the topic up with Shaquille Baptiste, a parent at Dr. George Washington Carver Elementary School in the Bayview, he spoke to how he believes segregation within San Francisco bleeds into his kids’ learning environment.
“I’m not from San Francisco, but this city is hella gentrified, it’s hella segregated … For example, our oldest daughter, she goes to school in Lincoln (Abraham Lincoln High School). You go over there, they got boba shops, you know, everything is just nice … When you come over here, and you see people driving all fast and hear kids cussing and fights and all kinds of stuff going on.”
Admin within Carver Elementary echoed Baptiste’s concerns. “One of the greatest questions and wonders we still have is in regards to the impact that this pandemic, the racial unrest, and local community unrest has had on our students and their families. We see residual effects of trauma in student behavior sometimes, but in our instructional blocks, we can also observe students trying to express and share their experiences through their writing and oral storytelling.”
As the Covid-19 pandemic becomes more of a memory than a reality, we can’t forget that frontline workers still deserve the praise we gave them during lockdown. SFUSD should be doing so much more to accommodate our school communities. The recent shift in district leadership with new school board member Alida Fisher and Superintendent Dr. Matt Wayne may facilitate some much-needed change, but school communities need to continue to hold our leaders accountable.
This article was funded by the National Association of Black Journalists 2022 Black Press Grant. Sophia Chupein is the Social Media Manager and a community journalist for the SF Bay View. She holds a BA in Environmental Studies from UC Santa Barbara. Sophia can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.