San Francisco school officials took the first official step towards reopening this week, informing public health officials that the district plans to bring students back by the end of January.

In a letter of intent filed on Monday, Superintendent Vincent Matthews told the Department of Health that he plans to reopen six elementary schools as early as January 25. Another 18 locations begin on February 8, and 48 more on or after March. 22nd

The district also plans to reopen 11 preschool locations during the same period, but does not require the district’s approval.

Students with moderate to severe disabilities in San Francisco would be among the first to return to classrooms, followed by transition kindergarten to second grade. There is no set date for the return of older students.

That means that under the current schedule and reopening schedule, about 14,000 of the district’s 53,000 students could be back in school by the end of March.

The news is likely to be well received among distance learning students by many parents and students desperate to see the school reopen, as well as health professionals and officials who cite the serious and long-term consequences of learning loss, as well as isolation and mounting depression.

Classrooms in many other communities as well as private schools in San Francisco have been opened to students with very few cases of in-school transmission.

Families can choose to return to face-to-face classes, likely in a hybrid scenario where they spend part of the day and / or part of the week in the classroom. Those who do would go to their assigned elementary school when they reopen.

Notification is the first step in obtaining the necessary approval from health authorities to bring the students back. The district must now request the reopening, indicate which school locations are included in the plan, and come up with a comprehensive plan that meets health and safety requirements – including masking, social distancing, ventilation, and more. Before the reopening, health officials would conduct an on-site visit to confirm that all requirements are met.

However, district officials added a large asterisk to the reopening dates, saying if they do not have an agreement with the teachers’ union by December 18, the reopening would be further delayed.

Union officials said this week the date surprised them, even though negotiations have been going on for months. In a recent update earlier this week, the teachers’ union said it was focusing on teaching assistant conditions as well as classroom ventilation requirements.

School board member Alison Collins urged the district during Tuesday’s board meeting to put a box fan in the windows before reopening, a condition not required by the county health authorities.

A petition received from The Chronicle among workgroups in San Francisco makes a number of demands related to school reopening, including COVID-19 testing of students and staff. safe and reliable transportation; and adequate ventilation among other criteria.

Reopening schools has become a contentious debate in many communities in the Bay Area, whose concerns focus on the safety of teachers and staff. While recent data and research show schools are not breeding grounds for proliferation, teachers have suggested that a return to face-to-face teaching would be like a march to your death, though any reopening would require approval from public health officials.

It is unclear how the availability of COVID-19 vaccines would affect returns to the classroom. State and local officials urge Governor Newsom to give teachers priority over health workers and nursing home residents.

Several officials from across California, including San Francisco supervisor Hilary Ronen, held a press conference Thursday to pressure the state to get teachers to the top of the line.

“We know schools are places of interaction and connection, and there are important components that must be in place for personal learning to be safe,” said Superintendent Dr. Vincent Matthews in his announcement on the letter. “Returning to our school premises includes changing learning plans and bell plans, developing and providing appropriate protocols and training for employees, providing adequate cleaning and supplies for all locations, and initiating preventive measures and changes to facilities, among other things.”

The first San Francisco elementary schools to reopen are Alvarado, Cobb, Glen Park, Lawton, John Muir, and Sunset.

Jill Tucker is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @jilltucker