Starr King Elementary Begins to Welcome Students Back to Campus

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On April 12th, the San Francisco Unified School District will resume in-person instruction for students at facilities that’re in Phase 2a of the Return Safely Together Plan. Pupils and their families will have just six weeks of near normality before summer vacation. 

For many Phase 2a students it’ll be the first time they or their families set foot in their school or see their teachers outside of a screen. Starr King Elementary expects roughly 200 scholars to be on campus.

Phase 2a refers to the current stage of a strategy, already underway, for gradual re-opening of the District’s schools to small groups of students identified on the basis of need and feasibility. Phase 2a clusters include pre-kindergarten and early education students, elementary and secondary students in Special Day Class (SDC) programs with severe to moderate needs, and transitional kindergarten through second grade. Third through fifth graders will be reintroduced gradually. 

Certain populations within these groups aren’t part of Phase 2a but will be invited to in-person learning as part of Phase 2b, the dates for which haven’t yet been announced.

Families of in-person-eligible students have the option of continuing with distance learning.  Part of the months-long preparation for re-opening has been an extensive survey of families and students to determine the number of scholars schools can expect. According to Darlene Martin, Starr King Elementary principal, about two-thirds of eligible students will be coming to campus, attending classes under slightly restricted hours compared to before times. Teachers will continue to teach remotely, as well as in-person, for each class. 

As of the View’s publication, Starr King was finalizing a schedule to accommodate both in-person and distance learners. It’s yet another challenge for faculty and staff who have faced a year’s worth of unprecedented difficulties. 

“I do think folks are tired,” she said. “Zoom is wearing on everyone. But I don’t know what else we could do. Students need time in the classroom and with their peers.” 

The re-opening process has been frustrating for many families. Early in the year, the District indicated that Phase 2a would begin in February. That date passed, according to Martin, because of concerns over an increase in reported infections in the City and surrounding counties that starting shortly after the winter holidays. COVID risk levels had reached the highest level, “purple,” just a few weeks before schools were set to re-open. The district claimed it wasn’t possible to meet San Francisco Department of Public Health safety benchmarks. Plans also needed to be agreed to by 16 different labor unions representing District employees. 

“Now that we are out of purple and have vaccines we’re moving fairly quickly,” said Martin, who had just received her second dose of vaccine the day before. “In a district this size, there was a lot of work, by the District team and with help from folks who work with the City, to do all these tasks; improve ventilation, measure desks and how far apart they are, move equipment in and out of schools. I don’t know if it could have happened faster. I know a lot of people would have liked things to have been done faster. I know many parents are anxious to come back. Some are not. Teachers are anxious to come back. Some are not, because they have their own challenges.” 

Teachers who cannot be vaccinated, because of pregnancy or other factors, will continue to work remotely. 

“Some folks have conditions, for which they will not return to site,” Martin said. 

Programs that’ve been especially successful on digital learning platforms will remain remote. The school’s Artist in Residence will likely continue on Zoom, as will Golden State Warriors’ Learning Without Limits program participants. The Warrior’s Mindful Life Project uses Hip hop performances to promote mental and emotional health and teach mindfulness and focusing tools. 

“We have a great facilitator from the project,” Martin said. “Hip hop mindfulness is very engaging for the students.” 

Much of the Warriors’ program has been translated to videos or other remote platforms and aren’t likely to change back soon.

A particularly challenging aspect of the switch to remote learning for Starr King was finding ways to translate the school’s emphasis on hands-on experiential learning to homebound students and teachers.  The school created packaged kits containing supplies and instructions for students to assembly at home. The program has been successful enough that it may continue, even after all students have returned to the classroom.

Details of how in-person and on-line teaching will be combined are still being finalized. Most facility-related requirements have been met; the school is considering how to coordinate the comings and goings of people in and out of classrooms and buildings to ensure social distancing guidelines are consistently met. 

“For teachers, we spend a lot of time thinking about movement around the school,” Martin said. “The arrival and departure of kids is a little challenging, but like most things, it’s also instructive. We have restricted parking around our school, traffic challenges. It’s always led to problems with our parents and with the community. So, we’re re-thinking where do folks go? Where do they drop off kids? We have to think about all these things, which could be useful in the future, if we’re re-routing traffic and re-thinking exits and stuff like that. That’s a big deal.”

The school will also have to screen all students as they enter the building. How’s that going to happen? How are we going to get all these kids in? I think the kids will be fine. I think they’ll understand what we’re trying to do. I don’t anticipate any problems.”