Despite the pandemic, Potrero Kids, with campuses in Dogpatch and Potrero Hill, had mostly returned to a normal routine last fall. That changed in January with the Omicron coronavirus variant, which pushed half the staff of about 20 teachers into quarantine.
“It’s really the first time that we saw a large number of cases,” said the preschool’s director Rebecca Kee. “It hit us very hard. The first month back after the holidays was absolutely wild. It was like wildfire.”
The school had to close multiple classrooms at different times and shorten operating hours. Yet despite these challenges, the school community has proven resilient.
“The vibe of families and staff supporting one another has been incredible,” Kee said. “Even though we’ve had to roll with these punches, we’ve been making it work.”
Stephanie Murphy’s two-year-old, Marty, had his classroom close twice during the Omicron surge.
“We all just have to go with the flow and be really flexible during these times,” Murphy said. “And it helps to know that we’re all in it together. It was a challenge for teachers, but they did an incredible job of keeping the children really safe. We were overcautious, but that was a good thing, because we did keep most of our families safe through the surge.”
The school managed to avoid a complete shutdown, with classroom closures kept to two or three days.
“When you look at it from the child’s experience, their day-to-day has really not changed much at all. It’s been kind of incredible,” Kee said.
Even with the spate of cases in January and February and a student population that’s mostly younger than five, ineligible for vaccines, parents have a sense of security at the school.
“I feel very safe sending my child there,” said Megumi Aihara, whose four-year-old, Koda attends Potrero Kids. “He needs socialization, learning from his friends and peers. I think that’s really important; keeping schools open even during the Omicron surge.”
Murphy agreed that it was important to keep schools accessible.
“The benefits of having your child in school outweigh the risks knowing that Omicron is potentially mild in children,” she said.
Kee claimed the January surge was mostly caused by families exposed over the holidays, not from community spread at the school.
Aihara is grateful to be able to send her child to school, acknowledging how difficult it is for parents to get work done at home when kids are there too.
“It’s been a challenging time for all parents, but I felt really lucky to have a safe place to send my child,” she said.
Teacher Frances Amella takes satisfaction in providing a haven for parents to send their children.
“We were just so happy to be back in the classroom, giving the children a sense of normalcy, being there for them and the parents,” Amella said. “I’m trying to make them feel comfortable and that their child is in good hands. And we’re there for them. And they really are appreciative too.”
“It’s in the best interest of our children to keep them in the classroom, keep them engaged with their peers and learning,” Murphy said. “And to have the community around the school be flexible to make that happen.”
“At this point, we’re all just sort of accepting that this is part of our day to day now. There’s only so much locking down we can do for young kids,” Kee said. “Their time as a young child is short and very valuable.”
Amella cited some positive consequences from the pandemic, including an increase in outdoor time.
“We go everywhere, it’s so terrific. We do a lot of nature walks because it’s a little bit safer.”
She’s taken children to Jackson Park, Potrero Center and AT&T Park, attracting so much attention traveling around the neighborhood with a large group of kids that she’s taken to handing out business cards.
While Amella noted some behavioral changes in students, like a lack of focus, as pandemic stress trickled down from family members, parents have seen their children thrive at Potrero Kids even during COVID.
Murphy speculated that there’s little difference between her two children’s preschool experiences, one pre-pandemic, the other not.
“I’m sure there’s something but compared to our other son’s preschool experience with unmasked teachers, you wouldn’t know the difference. He’s just as eager to go to school, he seems to be learning just as much,” Murphy said.
Potrero Kids was founded in 2005 to provide a community for parents who wanted their children to attend public schools and stay in San Francisco. At the time Daniel Webster Elementary was being threatened with closure; the founding of Potrero Kids helped to save the school by keeping families in the neighborhood.
The school serves 100 two- to five-year-olds. It prioritizes admission for siblings enrolled in Daniel Webster Elementary as well as families living or working in San Francisco’s Eastern neighborhoods. The main campus is at 810 Illinois Street, with a second site at 465 Missouri Street.
“We have a wonderful community,” Amella said.