SF schools prepare to reopen with recall effort looming

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday August 4, 2021
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Autumn Looijen, right, asked Angela Rossoff to sign a petition to recall three members of the San Francisco School Board at the Castro Farmers Market in June. Her partner, Siva Raj, center, also was collecting signatures. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Autumn Looijen, right, asked Angela Rossoff to sign a petition to recall three members of the San Francisco School Board at the Castro Farmers Market in June. Her partner, Siva Raj, center, also was collecting signatures. Photo: Rick Gerharter

San Francisco public schools reopen to all students on August 16 for the first time since the school district sent pupils home in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While students in lower grades briefly returned late last academic year, most instruction has been conducted via computer screen over the last 17 months.

Returning to in-person instruction is welcome relief for families who have clamored to see the San Francisco Unified School District bring its students, teachers, and staff back to its campuses in a safe manner due to the ongoing health crisis. Anyone at a school site, be it a youth or an adult, will be required to wear a mask at all times.

District administrators are encouraging everyone eligible to be vaccinated against the virus, currently ages 12 and up, to get inoculated as soon as possible but are not imposing a vaccine mandate. When it brought back half of its students for in-person learning in the spring, the district did not have any confirmed cases of school transmission of the virus.

"We are so excited to welcome students back to school," stated SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews, Ed.D., in late July. "We continue to work closely with health experts to prepare for a safe school reopening."

It comes as parents upset over the prolonged closure of the schools and myriad concerns with the leadership of the district push to recall school board President Gabriela López, Vice President Faauuga Moliga, and Commissioner Alison Collins. Organizers of the effort aim to collect 70,000 signatures for each school board member by September 7 in order to qualify the recall onto a special election ballot likely in early 2022.

At the end of July, having hired paid signature gatherers, the recall campaign reported surpassing the halfway mark of their target numbers for all three, as there are separate recall petitions for the individual board members. Elections officials will need to verify that the required 51,345 valid signatures were collected for each of the three in order to move forward with holding any recall.

It remains to be seen if having students back in the classroom will dampen the recall drive. Recall leaders Autumn Looijen and Siva Raj, a couple with five school-age children between them who have been together since last summer, expressed confidence in the signature gathering effort during a recent phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter.

"People almost always sign for all three" recalls against the board members, said Looijen.

"There has been such an outpouring of support for this, it's been extraordinary," added Raj, the bisexual father of two sons attending public schools in the city.

His youngest, Rishaan Sivaraj, 9, is in elementary school, while Shriyans Sivaraj, 14, is in high school. Looijen's children attend school in Los Altos, as she shares custody of them with their father from whom she is separated.

The committee backing the school board recall had raised nearly $330,000 as of the end of July. Raj told the B.A.R. it is a nonpartisan effort that has attracted broad support in the city.

"We are not affiliated with any political group. Our group spans the entire political spectrum in San Francisco; it is a pretty wide spectrum," he said. "It is amazing to see so many people from different tribes come together and share the same desire to see children educated well."

Yet, with all three of the targeted school board members up for reelection in November 2022, some parents see no need for a recall so soon before voters head to the polls. Others have suggested bringing a charter amendment before voters to change the school board from being an elected body to an appointed one where the mayor and perhaps the Board of Supervisors are each given a certain number of seats to fill.

Amos Lim, a gay dad whose daughter is entering eighth grade in two weeks at a charter school sanctioned by the school district, is in the camp that opposes recalling the trio of school board members. He told the B.A.R. those upset with their leadership should instead focus on removing them from office next year.

"In general, I don't support the recall election," said Lim, who has applied to serve on the district's Equity Audit & Action Planning Committee.

Voters need to do their homework when selecting which candidates to vote for, argued Lim, including in down ticket races like that for school board seats. And if they don't like how they perform once elected, they can vote them out in the next election, he said.

"We need to find out what our candidates are. If we just decide to check a box and send in our ballot, we can't regret our decision," said Lim. "Unless something criminal is done, I believe in other ways to go about addressing some of the issues. A recall campaign to me is just not the right way to do it."

The day Lim spoke with the B.A.R. last week, he had just finished a conference call with school leaders about the plans for the new academic year. His 13-year-old daughter, Alicia, was one of the students who briefly went back to school in the spring but only to participate in outdoor school activities for a few hours on several Fridays.

"We are looking forward to school starting," Lim said, as the family has followed health guidelines to prevent their being infected with the coronavirus. "For us, it is about wearing masks and being vaccinated."

In February, students from several elementary schools participated in an outdoor Zoom class in Duboce Park that was part of an event held by Decreasing the Distance, a group advocating for school reopening. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

Myriad issues fuel recall drive
It was not only the protracted fight over reopening the city's schools that has driven support for the recall. Various issues over the last year led to widespread exasperation with the current leadership of the public school district.

Although in the works long before the COVID pandemic hit, a proposal released last fall from a district advisory body to rename 44 of its schools was met with fierce criticism not just from upset parents but city leaders, including Mayor London Breed and gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco). It resulted in international headlines and scathing critiques of the school board, lambasted for wasting time on the renaming debate instead of finalizing a school reopening plan.

Gay school board member Mark Sanchez, who did not respond to a request for comment for this article, had pushed through the creation of the school renaming advisory body in 2018. But it received little attention outside some school circles until last fall, when the members completed their work, albeit a year behind schedule.

Lim told the B.A.R. that when he was involved with the PTA at his daughter's former elementary school, the renaming group had sought out parents' input on possibly changing its name. He found the resulting controversy rather confounding, as Lim noted the school district was merely following its normal decision-making process.

"If you have an advisory committee issue a report, the school board has to read it and support it or reject it. It just happened to be during a pandemic," said Lim.

Schools selected for new names included those honoring George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and the state's senior Democratic U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a former mayor and city supervisor. The school board had accepted the recommended list and sought new name proposals from the 44 school sites by April.

Facing a lawsuit threat the board reversed course in February and shelved renaming any schools. At the time López committed to a more "deliberative" process next time with input from local historians, who had not been consulted by the advisory group.

She also pledged that the district's "only focus" would be on getting its students back into the classroom. Contacted last week by the B.A.R. to talk about the upcoming opening of the schools and the recall drive, López declined to be interviewed by phone but did respond by email.

"We have been actively working all summer to get our school buildings and classrooms ready for our first day of school," she wrote. "We are consistently communicating with families through town halls, phone messaging, packages sent home, etc. Especially as things continue to update. Aside from wearing masks because we understand that is the safest protocol we need to continue to implement, we are also encouraging families and students who are eligible to get the vaccine."

Some school sites, López noted, "have and are hosting vaccination clinics so our students, families, and community members have easy access where they feel the most comfortable."

As for why LGBTQ voters should have confidence in her continued leadership of the school board, and why LGBTQ parents should consider enrolling their children in its schools as opposed to enrolling them in private ones or moving to other school districts in the area, López didn't directly address the question.

"As president I have made sure our focus has been on reopening schools safely and helping students feel prepared and comfortable to learn in the environment they choose," she responded. "I've been very excited and proud of the work we all have done to get here together and know we are all looking forward to the first day of school and continuing our work successfully."

Citing his being ill, Moliga asked the B.A.R. to email him questions for this article. He noted that the board is working closely with health experts as it readies to welcome students back this month. Students should stay home if they feel sick, he stressed, and screen for symptoms before coming to school.

"We are planning for a full reopening, and continue to monitor conditions and work in close consultation with local public health officials," wrote Moliga, noting that there was no known transmission of the virus when the schools partially opened in the spring. "Schools across the world have shown similar evidence that in-person learning can happen safely."

He declined to comment on the recall drive but did say LGBTQ families should feel confident in enrolling their children in the city's public schools.

San Francisco school board President Gabriela López. left, and school board Vice President Faauuga Moliga. Photos: Courtesy Facebook, Twitter  

"SFUSD offers language pathway programs in 12 languages, career pathways in every high school, arts programs in every school, and much more. SFUSD's graduation rate is higher than the state's (the state's graduation rate is 84.3% compared to SFUSD's graduation rate of 87.3%)," wrote Moliga. "SFUSD has long been seen as a nationwide leader in many areas, from social emotional learning curricula to computer science to LGBTQ studies and ethnic studies, to name a few."

Moliga, a clinical crisis social worker, touted the district's "Family Wellness Check-ins" initiative, where school staff and teachers checked in with how families were doing under the stay-at-home order last year and took a school site-based coordinated care approach. He also pointed to the district's Student and Family Resource Link line to provide help and resources to families.

"Returning students to in-person school is going to require even more wellness services and family partnerships. And I expect the referrals to also tick up," wrote Moliga. "But if the last year has taught me anything, it's that collaboration and a can-do attitude has prepared us. I'm looking forward to welcoming students and families back next year. And to support their wellness like never before."

Collins did not respond to the B.A.R.'s interview request. She has been a particular lightning rod since being elected to the school board in 2018.

After tweets of hers from five years ago in which she used racist language against Asian American parents resurfaced in March, some Asian community members and many of the city's elected leaders, including Moliga and fellow school board member Jenny Lam, called on her to resign. It came amid a surge in violent and deadly attacks against the Asian and Pacific Islander community spurred on by racist attitudes about the COVID pandemic, which first emerged in China.

Saying her tweets were taken out of context, Collins nonetheless issued an apology "for the pain my words may have caused." After her board colleagues removed Collins as vice president, she filed an $87 million lawsuit against the school district.

While Lim found her tweets "wrongheaded," he doesn't feel she should be recalled for them since she wasn't on the board when she wrote them.

"She has apologized and is doing the work that she needs to educate herself and understand the issues better," he said.

Also embroiling the school board in controversy was its decision to change the selection process for Lowell High School, long considered its most academically prestigious. It added to the consternation of alumna Natalya "Natasha" Litt, the co-parent with her wife, Janelle Jacky-Litt, of 8-year-old twins entering third grade this fall and a 3-year-old son.

Speaking with the B.A.R. this spring, Litt said her family had found the schools being closed "challenging" and felt the district's leaders weren't focused on the reopening plan. In agreement Lowell had long-standing issues of racism and bias, Litt feared the enrollment changes would negatively impact those students who want to be challenged in the classroom.

"I do understand it has gotten very difficult and challenging to plan for something like this. But they had a lot of time and spent time on not this issue," said Litt. "They spent it on school names and changing my high school in a way that will make the racism and bias they want to fix even worse while also really cruelly altering the futures of the kids who benefit from a place like Lowell."

Another matter that led Litt to be supportive of the recall efforts happened in February, when the entire school board came under fire for raising objections to seating a gay white dad, Seth Brenzell, on its volunteer Parent Advisory Council because he would not add enough diversity to the group, which at the time had no male members. It was comprised of all moms, three of whom were white, three Latina, two Black, and one Tongan.

"I recognize as a queer white person I still have forms of privilege in society a straight person with a different skin color doesn't have. I get that, but I don't think that should control whose help is welcomed and not welcomed," said Litt. "If the goal here is to have an inclusive and diverse and welcoming school district for people of all backgrounds and do that for people of color, which we must, can we please do that for people who are LGBTQ?"

The board tabled Brenzell's appointment and called for the PAC to return with a more diverse group of applicants for it to approve. It did so in June, though Brenzell decided to withdraw his name from consideration and no men were brought forward as nominees.

"This year the district lost the voice of a gay father with excellent qualifications for this PAC because we deemed he was not diversified enough. I regret how the board expressed that," Lam said during the board's June 22 meeting. "That is not how I and I hope my colleagues see us as conducting ourselves as a governing body of SFUSD."

The school board voted unanimously 7-0 to appoint six women to the PAC, one as an alternate member, with the hope of seeing a father appointed at a later date for one of the remaining seats still to be filled on the 15-member group. Its decision was not without controversy over one of the new PAC members it seated: Mari Villaluna, a queer single parent of a kindergartner this school year. Two-spirit and nonbinary, Villaluna had served on the school renaming advisory committee.

They had urged Collins and the other board members to reject Brenzell because they felt the PAC needed queer people of color on it. Villaluna then faced opposition to being seated on the advisory panel, as some parents called Villaluna's selection hypocritical and an example of cronyism. Others highly praised their advocacy around LGBTQ and school issues.

López told the B.A.R., "We have gone through an entire process these last couple of months, working with our parent advisory committees to make sure there are a diverse set of parents on our committees."

Former PAC chair Naomi Laguana bemoaned the "tit for tat" situation surrounding Brenzell and Villaluna, wishing that both could have been approved for seats on the advisory body. She stressed that the PAC members would not have brought forward Villaluna and the other women to the school board for approval if they didn't believe they could work collaboratively together going forward.

"It is heartbreaking to see parents in such disagreement," said Laguana, who had announced her resignation from the PAC due to deciding to enroll their child into a private school this fall. "We have to come together and advocate for our kids."

The ongoing controversies and upcoming search for a new superintendent, as Matthews pushed back his retirement to the end of next June, is why the school board members need to be recalled, said Raj.

"There are so many levels of failure in oversight that is just extraordinary," he said. "In the meantime, they are focused on a lot of issues that don't immediately affect parents and the community and the needs of our kids' education today."

UPDATED 8/9/2021 to correct the amount of money raised by the committee backing the school board recall was nearly $330,000 as of the end of July.

UPDATED 8/10/2021 to clarify when Amos Lim's daughter went back to school in the spring it was only to participate in outdoor school activities for a few hours on several Fridays.

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