For gay educator, a school year like no other

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday August 19, 2020
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San Francisco school board president Mark Sanchez is seeking reelection this November. Photo: Courtesy Mark Sanchez
San Francisco school board president Mark Sanchez is seeking reelection this November. Photo: Courtesy Mark Sanchez

Thursday morning Mark Sanchez will welcome a new class of fourth graders back to school in Brisbane where he works as an elementary school teacher. Unlike on the first day of school in years past, he will be the only one in his classroom, as his students will be tuning in online via videoconference.

Like school districts across the country, the Brisbane School District has opted to virtually kickoff its 2020-2021 academic school year due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. And it remains unknown when the K-8 public school district on the Peninsula south of San Francisco will reopen its school buildings for in-person instruction.

The last time Sanchez was in his classroom in front of his pupils was March 16. For the rest of the spring and summer his school district reverted to distance learning, which he and his colleagues all did from their homes.

"It was definitely the most challenging experience I have had as a teacher," Sanchez, 57, told the Bay Area Reporter in a phone interview this month.

At the same time the gay educator was helping to chart a course for the San Francisco Unified School District, as he is an elected member of the school board and took over the gavel as president of the oversight body at the beginning of the year. It too suspended in-class instruction amid the pandemic and opted to begin its new school year on August 17 remotely, providing its students online "crisis distance learning" from the confines of their homes.

While the smaller district where Sanchez works opted to let teachers back into their classrooms for the new school year, San Francisco's far larger school district is keeping its staff at home for now.

"We know that nothing will ever fully replace in-person instruction, but educators are excited to welcome our students and families back remotely for now and continue to work together on plans to get us safely back to our classrooms and schools," stated United Educators of San Francisco President Susan Solomon.

The school district is now negotiating with its teachers union on what a hybrid educational system would look like once they are confident they can safely return educators and students to the classroom. Under consideration is having half the class attend school on Mondays and Tuesdays, with the other half in the classroom Thursdays and Fridays. Everyone would stay home for remote learning on Wednesdays.

Another proposal would be for one group of students to attend school in the mornings and the other in the afternoons. In addition to figuring out the scheduling logistics San Francisco education leaders are grappling with myriad issues, like a lack of school nurses, bus service interruptions, and ventilation problems in school buildings, that need to be addressed in order for students and staff to be back on campus.

"We have not determined yet when to go back to school. We are hoping mid-October but the way things are going it is looking it may not happen," said Sanchez, though he added, "we are eternal optimists."

Safety first

No matter what system the school district lands on to resume in-school instruction, Sanchez stressed that multiple safety precautions will be followed. All school staff will be tested for COVID every two months, he noted, while students would be tested if they are showing symptoms of the illness.

"If we have the students come in, they will be at least six feet apart from each other and the instructor. They will all be wearing protective masks, and the teachers will be wearing masks and shields," said Sanchez.

The rollout of the remote learning "could have been smoother," said Martin Rawlings-Fein, a bisexual transgender married father of two students who attend the city's public schools. Nonetheless, Rawlings-Fein told the B.A.R. he supports the decision to keep the students out of the classroom for the time being.

"We are in a crisis mode. We are trying to make things happen that we normally wouldn't do and make people working fulltime also take on the teacher role with their children," said Rawlings-Fein, who like his wife has mostly been working from home since the shelter-in-place orders were issued. "I am happy they are home and am happy we are staying at home and staying safe. I think all students need to be safe and happy and healthy. For no reason would I put students back into the schools at this time."

Sanchez acknowledged that the decision-making process about the new school year had frustrated many parents. He is working with his colleagues to improve their communication with families, and he noted the school district would be checking in with families three times during the school year to see how they are doing.

"We are going to be doing what we did last spring with wellness checks for families," he said. "We want to get a better understanding of how families are doing emotionally and what needs they have."

As for the first day of the school year in San Francisco, Sanchez called it a success.

Running for reelection

The interruption to the normal classroom routines comes as Sanchez is seeking reelection to the San Francisco Board of Education, on which he is the lone member from the city's LGBTQ community. His election four years ago marked a return for Sanchez to the oversight body on which he had previously served for eight years, including an earlier stint as board president, until stepping down in early 2009.

Due to his being back on the board, Sanchez resigned as the principal of the district's Cleveland Elementary School in the Excelsior neighborhood, where he had been for nearly six years. It forced him to seek work outside the school district.

He had already decided to seek another four-year term prior to the COVID outbreak. While he acknowledged he asks himself "all the time" why run again, Sanchez told the B.A.R. the health crisis has only furthered his resolve for wanting to remain on the school board.

"Once it hit, I was president and thrust into more of a leadership role. I felt it was important to have continuity there," said Sanchez.

Other candidates

While fellow school board member Jenny Lam is also running for another term, Rachel Norton and Stevon Cook both decided not to seek reelection. The only LGBTQ non-incumbent candidate who had pulled papers for the school board race, Njon Sanders, announced last week that he had decided not to run.

There are eight non-incumbents who qualified for the ballot. Like Sanchez, parent advocate Alida Fisher, who chairs the district's special education advisory panel, has the endorsements of the city's two main LGBTQ political clubs. The progressive Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club is also supporting Kevine Boggess, a married father who is the education policy director at Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth.

The Alice B. Toklas LGBTQ Democratic Club has also endorsed Lam, Mayor London Breed's education adviser, and parent advocate Michelle Parker, who has served on numerous school-related oversight bodies. Parker and Fisher both ran unsuccessfully for the school board two years ago, as did Paul Kangas, who is running again this fall.

Also on the ballot are Matt Alexander, a former teacher and school principal in the district who is now the lead organizer for Faith in Action Bay Area; Nick Rothman, a department chair at City College of San Francisco whose two daughters attend high school in the district; and educators Genevieve Lawrence and Andrew Alston.

Sanchez, who has endorsed Lam, Boggess, and Alexander, told the B.A.R. that he is feeling confident of his chances in the race.

"I have been fortunate to get all the endorsements I have gone through the process to get," he noted.

Rawlings-Fein, who ran two years ago for a school board seat, told the B.A.R. it is important for the oversight body to include educators, parents, and people from the LGBTQ community. A member of the Alice club board who was personally supporting the quartet of candidates that received its endorsement, Rawlings-Fein said it would be a real loss were Sanchez not to be reelected.

"The LGBTQ community, especially, really needs representation on the board," he noted, and without Sanchez, "there will be nobody on the board at all who is LGBTQ; that is scary."

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