SFUSD draws frustration by prioritizing renaming over reopening


Illustration credit: Clementine Daniel.

This story is split into 2 parts, The Renaming gives concrete details about the bay area schools being renamed and the criteria. The Students section shares student opinions and reactions to the renaming, and their hopes for the future of SF public schools.

The Renaming:
Amidst a raging pandemic with business and school closures, the San Francisco School Board has placed one-third of the city’s public schools on a list requiring them to rename themselves. The San Francisco Chronicle estimated at least a million dollars would be needed for schools to re-label signs, documents, athletic uniforms, and more.
The 44 schools under review, including Lowell, George Washington, and Mission high schools, have names honoring presidents, writers, and generals, as well as historical time periods such as the California Gold Rush (El Dorado elementary). “Those names on the school buildings, including Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson, that have connections to slavery, genocide or oppression should be changed,” said the renaming committee in their recommendation to the school board in October of 2020. It should be noted that the school board did not consult any professional historians when creating the list of schools, instead citing Wikipedia articles.
On March 12th, 2020, SFUSD shut down schools for the indefinite future as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the country. While a few San Francisco independent elementary, middle and high schools have been able to return to in-person school this winter, the vast majority of independent schools and all public schools remain shut throughout the district. Since the initial list of school names was petitioned to the school board, an outbreak of angry students, parents, and faculty members have vocalized their discontent across the city, even making the national news.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed has come forward with multiple statements in support of the affected families trying to grapple with the fact that renaming schools has been prioritized over getting their students back in the classroom.
On Oct. 16, 2020, along with an official statement, Breed tweeted, “to address inequities, we need to get our kids back in the classroom.”
State Senator Scott Weiner responded over Twitter in support, saying that “Renaming a big swath of SF schools (not to mention the Lowell fiasco) during a pandemic & budget collapse — when kids are suffering with remote learning — isn’t the right focus.”
On Tuesday, Jan. 26th, 2021, the public schools listed for renaming were affirmed in a 6-1 school board vote, requiring administrations and parents to direct their efforts towards renaming rather than establishing a safe in-person learning plan. Following the vote, Mayor Breed responded with another statement on Jan. 27 in which she affirmed her support of students in need of returning to school in person. “[Renaming] is an important conversation to have, and one that we should involve our communities, our families, and our students,” she wrote. “What I cannot understand is why the School Board is advancing a plan to have all these schools renamed by April when there isn’t a plan to have our kids back in the classroom by then.”
As of Feb. 3rd, 2021, City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed a lawsuit on behalf of San Francisco against the San Francisco School Board of Education and the San Francisco Unified School District. San Francisco is the first U.S. city to sue its own school district, citing a violation of State Law in their disregard for establishing a clear plan for safe in-person learning.

Students respond:

Multiple Urban students who previously attended SFUSD schools that are on the list of schools facing renaming mandates expressed frustration with the administration of funds towards renaming as opposed to the schools themselves. While they understood the importance of having school names that represent and uplift the diverse student and faculty bodies in the district, many stressed that addressing the inequities already in place at these schools should take priority over their names.
“I came from a public middle school, and we didn’t even have our own textbooks,” said Oliver Pritikin ‘24. “We had to share what we had with every period, and the textbooks we had were completely trashed.”
Noa Resnikoff ‘22 agreed. “Most public [school] teachers have to pay for supplies out of pocket. That’s unacceptable,” she said.
However, it’s not just the funding that students and families are frustrated about. The SF Chronicle wrote that critics have called the committee’s process “slapdash, with little to no input from historians and a lack of information on the basis for each recommendation.” While some schools had a more understandable placement on the list, such as George Washington High School, named after the first U.S president and known slaveholder, others have been subject to scrutiny over the justification for renaming.
Hattie-rose Bellino, a senior at Mission High School, said that she and her fellow students were all shocked that Mission made the list. “I understand the reason given the horrible history of mission systems in California, but Mission is a name that has been reclaimed by the community, especially by our student body which is largely low-income, students of color or Latinx students who live in the neighborhood,” she said.
As a student at a public elementary school, Urban student Sylvia Hoyt ‘23 didn’t remember having any acknowledgement or education surrounding her school’s namesake, William McKinley. “I didn’t even know who William McKinley was. I feel like if they’re gonna name a school after someone, they might as well tell you who they are,” she said.
Resnikoff added that education around the school names could be an alternative solution to the issue of renaming. “We aren’t idolizing these people, we’re exposing their wrongdoings that shouldn’t be repeated,” she said. “The schools would be better off educating their students on the people they’re named after, the good and the bad.”
The pressure of researching new names has also raised concerns among students and faculty forced to work and take classes from home as a result of seemingly never-ending school closures. “One proposal that I thought sounded really good was calling [the schools] after plants or animals from California,” said Hoyt. “I definitely think it’s a good argument to make [for renaming], but just not necessarily during COVID.”
Exasperation over a lack of effort towards reopening schools has mounted with the passing of the new year. In the most recent school board meeting, the topic of reopening schools was not even an item for discussion on their agenda.
Like many of her fellow students and community members, Bellino expressed her understanding of the great importance of removing names that uplift racist and sexist figures and messages. However, she said, “in the face of the pandemic, it doesn’t make sense to devote money towards repainting logos and buying new sports equipment that we won’t even be able to see or use.” Bellino added that many of her classmates agree with her. “Not only do they think going to school at Mission — in the Mission — is a source of pride, but they believe that the school district should be focusing on much more pressing issues which need funds, like offering safe in-person classes.”
Hoyt empathized with the sentiment of many students regarding their loss of a school year. “At a certain point, there’s not really a point changing the name of a school if there’s no school to go back to.”