As San Francisco schools struggle to make up for a massive staffing crisis brought on by rising cases of COVID-19, some teachers are skipping school to protest a limited availability of masks, testing and ventilation in schools.
The sickout petition and protest took place Thursday after more than 600 teachers were absent earlier this week, sending even the district superintendent and school board members to teach in classrooms. Although some teachers’ union members participated, United Educators of San Francisco is not planning or affiliated with the action, according to President Cassondra Curiel.
“I know that members feel desperate and I don’t blame them at all,” Curiel said Wednesday during a press briefing about testing and staffing concerns. “Heat systems aren’t on and windows are open. Until today, we did not have any high-quality masks distributed across school sites. Folks are showing up with their own supplies.”
A total of 616 teachers were out sick Thursday, but it’s unclear how many were physically ill, helping others who are sick or joining the petition. Less than five teachers showed up to a planned demonstration in front of San Francisco Unified’s headquarters on Thursday, Mission Local reports.
Across San Francisco, COVID-19 cases are soaring, at more than triple the peak surge with the delta variant. But hospitalizations have remained low in comparison, a positive sign, according to most infectious disease experts.
Rori Abernethy, a 7th- and 8th-grade math teacher at James Denman Middle School, is one of the teachers who decided to call in sick Thursday. The Examiner spoke with Abernethy about her decision and what is frustrating teachers as students return from winter break.
What is the sickout, and what are teachers hoping to convey by staying home? We were surprised at how many people were out Monday through Wednesday. The sickout petition started going around, and it spread like fire. Everybody is fed up with the district demonizing us and not caring about our health. They are gaslighting us telling us it’s safe when other districts are getting PPE, which we didn’t.
I’ve been here for seven years and teaching for 20 years. It’s a slap in the face when you hear all your friends at other Bay Area school districts have rapid tests and masks and you don’t.
We all buy our own masks. I get a bag with 15 surgical masks about once a month. That’s for me and all my students. And we have a lot of poor parents. Do you know how expensive it is if you have a house full of kids and to buy new masks for them every day? These are the conversations everyone is having.
There are about 27 people out sick at my site already. I didn’t even bother to advertise this at my school. We are pretty much already the sickout.
How many teachers do you know who are calling out sick in protest versus those who are sick or caring for someone who is sick? I don’t know. We are surprised every day, just like you are. We just threw this out there because everyone is so frustrated this spring. I tried telling school board members and the mayor that we aren’t going to make it. We are all so stressed and exhausted and so scared.
What would you like to see the district do? What would make you feel more confident about continuing to work in person at this stage? We want KN95 masks daily. Counselors and custodial staff aren’t getting masks. Nobody is getting them.
And we need more access to testing. Testing is so much work. If you look at our start and end times, there’s no time to get across town to get your test. And this is just staff. How are all these families supposed to go find time to take all their kids around to get tested?
A teacher friend told me yesterday she tested positive, and she has toddlers. She can’t find tests for her kids anywhere. How is that reasonable? Why didn’t you send rapid tests to all the kids before the break and make testing available at every site? There is money in San Francisco and California. I don’t want to hear you can’t afford masks and tests.
What were you doing from home? I’m lesson planning, talking to my students and grading work. But I cried all day yesterday when a bunch of us teachers were talking during our math meeting. On Monday and Tuesday, pretty much all the kids were there, but almost no one was there on Wednesday. I’m a math teacher. If it’s one kid, I can pull them in at lunch and help catch them up. Yesterday I had probably 25 kids out. What do I teach if 25 kids don’t know the lesson?
We have some unvaccinated kids still, and when you have close contact, all those kids don’t come back for a week. The kids who are vaccinated come back sooner. Maybe they are sick or maybe some parents are keeping kids home? I don’t know what’s going on.
There is increasing evidence omicron causes less severe illness than previous variants. What is your main fear about being on campus right now? All of us are really grappling with that fact. We know this isn’t the same as delta. People quit in the fall, too, and we had a huge shortage. But the difference now is the contagion factor. It’s just hella contagious. I’m pretty sure I can get COVID and even though it might not kill me, I take care of my 96-year-old grandmother who is immunocompromised, and teachers have babies at home who are not vaccinated. And there’s the fear of long term COVID and other illnesses. We all have something where we are afraid of what will happen if we do get it.
The biggest fear is going home and putting one of your loved ones in the hospital. That’s what people are worried about.