Jamila Brooks managed to balance her kids’ distance learning and teach her first grade class at Montclair Elementary School last year. She feels conflicted about schools reopening next month. Credit: Pete Rosos

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On a Friday in mid-March, before the shutdown, special education teacher Sayuri Valenza was teaching her class at Bret Harte Middle School in Oakland’s Dimond District when a student brought in a bag of Hot Cheetos. The student started sharing the chips with classmates, leaving everyone with red-dusted fingertips. 

“For a couple weeks, we had been talking about needing to be careful, not sharing stuff, and that we have to be more clean and not spread germs,” Valenza said. Coronavirus cases were growing, and experts were stressing the importance of hand-washing, sanitation, and cleanliness. 

“I remember throwing a fit, while laughing and joking, asking, ‘What don’t you understand? What do I have to do to get you to understand you can’t do this anymore?’”

Valenza and her students didn’t know it at the time, but that day, March 13, would be the last day her class would meet in person. Oakland Unified School District closed schools after that for the remainder of the school year to limit the spread of coronavirus. 

For Valenza, that memory illustrates one of her biggest concerns with resuming in-person classes: How do you get kids to not act like kids?

With Oakland schools scheduled to begin on August 10, district officials plan to release guidelines this week for what school will look like in the fall. Opinions vary widely as parents and teachers weigh competing concerns like health, access to technology, and learning loss.

To not be there in person with them, you don’t realize how much one-on-one attention you’re giving the kids until all of a sudden, you can’t do it.

Sayuri Valenza, a middle school special education teacher

In preliminary plans presented to families last week, the district recommended a phase-in model, where some groups, like students with disabilities, would come to campus every day, and other students would come in just once or twice a week to check in with their teacher. As health outlooks improve, more students will be allowed to receive in-person instruction at school. Under that plan, Valenza would be in the classroom with her students every day, draped in personal protective gear. 

Valenza has reviewed the plan closely, but she doesn’t feel assured by it. “I don’t feel comfortable going back because I don’t think that it will be safe enough for all of us to be there,” she said. 

But she’s also thinking about her students, and whether distance learning meets their needs. “To not be there in person with them, you don’t realize how much one-on-one attention you’re giving the kids until all of a sudden, you can’t do it.”

In West Oakland, April Haynes’ son just finished seventh grade at Westlake Middle School. He struggled to complete his classwork once schools transitioned to distance learning, so Haynes wants him to go back to in-person school in the fall.

“You can only have so much fun ‘Zooming’ every day for so long. It got really boring and he just wanted to play video games,” Haynes said, referring to the video conferencing software that many teachers relied on to reach their students. “I tried to have him do summer school, but because it’s all on Zoom, he was like ‘No, I’m not doing it.’ It’s just too much.”

Depending on the district’s guidelines, Haynes said she may withdraw her son from Westlake if there are no in-person options for him. She also enrolled him in Nea Community Learning Center, a charter school in Alameda, and is considering homeschooling. 

“Where I live, none of us knows anybody that has the virus. We’re like, ‘Send our kids back to school.’ Until it hits over here and it becomes that serious or critical, then it’s not very real for us,” Haynes said.

What Oakland families say they want next semester

In a survey about how to handle the upcoming semester the district distributed to families in May, an option to do all distance learning with no in-person instruction received the least support, with about 40% of respondents reporting that that plan would work for them. Hybrid options, like a half-day in school and a half-day of remote learning, or a few days in school and a few days of remote learning per week, received the most support, with 55% and 53%, respectively. 

If distance learning continues in a significant way in the fall, many families would like to see more robust and engaging work for their students. Like Haynes, a majority of families reported that their children’s learning regressed or remained stagnant during remote learning, according to the survey. 

Less than half of families surveyed felt that their child was adequately prepared for the next school year, with similar numbers of respondents reporting that their child was learning new skills or enjoying distance learning. The survey reached 4,523 families in Oakland.

For Vilma Serrano, a teacher at Melrose Leadership Academy, finding a way to engage her 4- and 5-year-old students without being in the classroom, and without relying too much on screens, was initially challenging. She spent time surveying parents for what materials they had at home that they could use in her lessons, like paper, drawing materials, building blocks, or a yard for physical activities. She sent out a recipe for making playdough with household items. For parents who needed more supplies, Serrano went back to her school to pack boxes of her classroom supplies to give to them. 

She also sent parents information about developmental milestones so they could monitor their kids at home.

“Do I feel totally great about it? It’s complicated. Overwhelmingly, I think it was really stressful and hard for everyone,” Serrano said. “Have they met the end-of-year standards and beginning kindergarten standards? Given that we’re in a pandemic, that’s the least of my worries right now. My worries are that they have food, somewhere to live, healthcare, and parents that can afford to take time off to take care of them when they get sick.”

Serrano said that until coronavirus cases begin to decrease consistently, district officials should be discussing how to improve the quality of distance learning and ensure that all families have access to technology, rather than trying to resume in-person instruction. She’s also concerned about how the district will enforce safety precautions in a pandemic, when some schools struggled to stock soap and paper towels in bathrooms and custodians were understaffed prior to the outbreak.

“If we were unsafe pre-pandemic, I don’t know that I have the trust that things would be safer when we return,” she said.

Oakland families with special needs share their concerns

Bernita Askew is the mom of a child with special needs at Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School in West Oakland. When the district announced in March that schools would be closing, Askew knew she would have to lead a lot of her son’s learning at home. 

“I cannot say that was a bad experience for me and him. I got him to at least start making out sounds and trying to gravitate towards reading,” she said.

Even though she had to spend most of her day working with her son, who just finished first grade, Askew said she doesn’t want to send him back to school in August. With the recent surge in cases and the flu season coming, she doesn’t think the virus is contained enough. And she’s concerned that her son’s special needs could make it hard for him to follow all the new safety precautions.

“He’s not one who can keep his hands off of another child. He’s not going to want to wear that mask. He’s going to pull it down below his nose. He’ll turn a cartwheel on the floor. He’s just that person,” she said. 

Another worry is how her son, and other kids, will be able to transition back to school after being at home for five months—especially children who are sensitive to change and on the autism spectrum, Askew said. At a recent district meeting for parents and caregivers of students with disabilities, Askew pressured officials to come up with a plan for helping students adjust to the new policies.

Valenza, the special education teacher at Bret Harte, echoed those concerns. She wants to see the district create videos in several languages that show students how their classrooms and hallways will look in the fall, so they know what to expect and won’t be shocked. 

Oakland teachers want to see proof of COVID preparedness

As a single mom of two school-aged children and an elementary school teacher, Jamila Brooks managed to balance her kids’ distance learning and teach her first grade class at Montclair Elementary School. But it was tough.

“It was a struggle every day. I worked more than I ever worked before. I could not do any lesson planning and had to do everything at night when my kids were asleep,” she said.

She empathizes with parents of young kids who have to be monitored all day, like her daughter who is entering kindergarten in the fall. As a parent, she realizes that her children need social interaction. They don’t have a backyard, so school also provided a way for her kids, including a rising fifth-grader, to be able to run around. “As a parent, I’d like for them to be in school,” she said. 

But as a teacher, the idea of being in a classroom makes her uneasy. “I feel really conflicted,” Brooks said.

It was a struggle every day. I worked more than I ever worked before. I could not do any lesson planning and had to do everything at night when my kids were asleep

Jamila Brooks, a first-grade teacher and parent

She’d like to see schools demonstrate that they can provide supplies of personal protective equipment, screening processes, and smaller class sizes before in-person instruction resumes. And she resents widely shared public sentiment that schools should open back up because parents need childcare.

“It’s almost like I’m your employee, and that didn’t feel good. That’s how it feels a little bit about going back to school, that you’re just babysitting these kids so their parents can go back to work.”

Oakland Unified School District will begin negotiating with the Oakland Education Association teachers union on Tuesday and will release its first plan for the fall on Friday, July 10. Officials have reiterated that Friday’s guidelines are not final and could change if the pandemic worsens or improves.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that OUSD will release its plan for the fall on Thursday. The story has since been updated to say the plan will be released on Friday, July 10.

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Ashley McBride

Ashley McBride reports on education equity for The Oaklandside. She covered the 2019 Oakland Unified School District teachers’ strike as a breaking news reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. More recently, she was an education reporter for the San Antonio Express-News where she covered several local school districts, charter schools, and the community college system. McBride earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, has held positions at the Palm Beach Post and the Poynter Institute, and is a recent Hearst Journalism Fellow.