Oakland teacher Sara Shepich teaches class via her laptop in May 2020 during the COVID-19 lockdown. Credit: Courtesy Sara Shepich

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With Oakland public schools scheduled to start classes in less than a month, the district released a rough plan for the fall semester last Friday. It includes a mix of remote and in-person learning.

To develop the plans, the Oakland Unified School District formed several working groups asking teachers, principals, other school staff, and parents to put heads together and come up with ideas about how in-person instruction, facilities, personal protective equipment, custodial services, and technology could work in the fall. The plan isn’t set in stone. The district is still in negotiations with its teachers’ union and other labor groups, and the outcome will further shape how OUSD reopens schools.

On top of that, the surge in recent weeks of coronavirus cases in Alameda County and California have caused county and state officials to pause or reverse the reopening of some businesses, which will have ripple effects on families, communities, and the economy. On Monday evening, OUSD superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell cautioned families to remain flexible, given the ongoing labor negotiations and unpredictability of the pandemic.

“We will continue to live in quite a bit of uncertainty for this school year,” she said. “Even when we get to the point when we have agreement, as soon as the ground shifts, we are going to have to adapt again and we’re going to have to continue to adopt new plans and adapt how we do school for the year.”

Here’s what you need to know about distance and in-person instruction, meals, technology, and personal protective equipment. (The Oaklandside also wants to know what questions you have about the fall semester.)

How will distance learning work?

Oakland Unified School District officials announced Friday that all students would begin the school year on Aug. 10 with distance learning, where students learn from home through video calls with their teachers and submit assignments online. This will last up to four weeks, and then schools plan to start phasing in small groups of students for in-person learning. 

Each school in the district will create its own “Start Strong Plan,” sharing an online curriculum and explaining how learning packets, laptops, and other materials will be distributed, and how students will be graded.

Assembly Bill 77, the state school funding bill, further spells out how kids should spend their days while learning remotely Each day, kindergarteners should spend at least three hours learning with a teacher. First, second, and third graders should get at least two hours and fifty minutes of instruction, and fourth through 12th graders should get at least four hours of daily lessons.

During the distance-learning period, teachers will either teach whole classes at once, or work with students in small groups. In the spring, Oakland families told the district  one-on-one and small-group instruction worked best for them during distance learning, according to a survey distributed at the end of the school year

At the elementary level, students will have daily lessons in reading and math, and weekly lessons in social studies, science, physical education, music, and art. In middle and high school, students will take three classes at a time in the form of “mini-mesters,” or quarters, and rotate classes at the end of each quarter. 

When will in-person learning begin?

The district has not yet set a date, but officials anticipate that distance learning will last for at least four weeks. If the coronavirus pandemic worsens, distance learning could last longer.

How will in-person learning work?

Once district-wide distance learning ends, schools will begin phasing in some students to receive daily in-person instruction. In the first stage, special education students will be on campus every day in small groups. All other students will have brief check-ins on campus up to once a week with their teachers and continue learning from home. 

In phase 2, foster students, homeless students, recent immigrants, and students who are falling behind or not participating in their classes can come to campus for support and small-group instruction. All other elementary students will come to school once a week on a rotating schedule: group A could come in on Mondays, group B on Tuesdays, and group C on Wednesdays. These classes will have up to 10 students each. 

A third grade classroom at Chabot Elementary School in Oakland is set up for physical distancing. During in-person learning, up to 12 students would be in a classroom. Credit: Oakland Unified School District

Middle and high school students in phase 2 will continue to check in with their teachers up to once a week while mainly learning from home. Students with specialized needs, like foster students or recent immigrants, may come to campus more often for support groups. 

In phase 3, all elementary students will come to school on a rotation schedule twice a week. Middle schoolers will come to class one to two days per week while high schoolers will continue with check-ins. Previously specified groups in middle and high school will receive support and on-campus instruction throughout phase 3.

Any student can learn fully from home, without coming onto campus at all, for the entire year if their family requests it.

What happens when a student gets sick?

Much of the district’s safety plan could change based on ongoing negotiations with teachers and other staff. As of now, OUSD will not be administering COVID-19 tests, according to the proposal. The plan does not address whether students and staff will be asked to self-quarantine at home if there is a possible exposure at school. 

Here’s what we do know: If a student is experiencing coronavirus symptoms—including fever, chills, body aches, sore throat, cough, shortness of breath, loss of taste or smell, nausea or headaches—they will leave the classroom and go to a specific “isolation area” within the school to be picked up by a parent or guardian. The student can return to school once they’ve gone three days without symptoms. The isolation and classroom areas will be cleaned, and the next group of students will wait an hour before going into the cleaned classroom.

Each day, students who come to campus will be screened and questioned about symptoms, if they’ve had any contact with anyone diagnosed with coronavirus, or if they’ve had contact with anyone displaying symptoms. Students who answer “yes” to any question will be asked to stay home until they’ve gone three days without symptoms if they test negative. 

Those who test positive will have to stay home until 10 days after their symptoms begin, or three days after their symptoms end, whichever takes longer. Symptomatic students who do not take a test must also stay home for 10 days or three days after their symptoms resolve.

If a student’s screening answers reveal that they have been exposed to the virus but decline to take a test for any reason, they will need to stay home for two weeks after exposure.

How will the district decide when to move to the next phase?

Officials are monitoring six criteria to determine when to progress to the next phase: 

  • Number of cases at schools
  • Supplies of personal protective equipment available
  • Availability of symptom screening
  • Physical capacity at schools
  • Sanitation and cleaning procedures
  • Transportation

If each of these categories is adequate for the increased number of students and staff on campus, the district will move into the next phase. Conditions will be evaluated every four to six weeks, officials said. 

If the county or state issues a shelter-in-place order at any point, schools will return to full distance learning.

How did the district decide which groups of students should start in-person learning first?

With limited classroom space, phase 1 seats will first go to students with individualized education programs (IEP) that require in-person teaching, and to preschool students with special needs. 

In phases 2 and 3, homeless students, students in foster care, recent immigrants, students without internet at home, and students who are having trouble with remote learning will be invited to campus for small-group instruction and support. If there is still space available for group support, students with low reading levels and other types of IEPs will be offered spots. 

If classrooms can’t accommodate all the students in these groups, priority will be given to children of essential workers, students who receive free or reduced-price lunch, and children with siblings at the same school.  

Where do I go if I need a laptop or an internet hotspot?

On Aug. 3, the district will distribute a survey to families asking about their technology needs at home. OUSD families could receive either a laptop or an internet hotspot, or both. In the spring, OUSD loaned 18,000 of its own devices to students.

The digital divide campaign the district launched in May is being handled by the Oakland Public Education Fund, a nonprofit that raises money for Oakland’s public school students. That campaign is working to get 19,000 more Chromebooks that students can keep, and distribution will start the third week of August. The goal of the campaign is to provide one laptop to every student who needs one, and one hotspot or subsidized internet service to every household that needs it.

Will students still receive meals?

Families will still be able to pick up meal packages that include breakfast, lunch, and supper for several days at a time, as they have throughout the summer. The locations, days, and times of meal distribution for the fall have not been released yet. 

Students who come to campus for class will eat with their group in their classroom or outside. If they are only on campus a few times a week, they will receive to-go meals for the days they’re at home.

Will the district provide personal protective equipment?

Right now, the district is asking schools to provide supplies of personal protective equipment to be used in classrooms. General education classrooms will be stocked on a monthly basis with two masks per student, four masks per adult, one face shield, one box of gloves for the teacher, cleaning spray, and paper towels. 

Since special education teachers often work in close contact with their students, they will receive more personal protective equipment. For each special education classroom, teachers will receive one N95 mask per day, one face shield, a minimum of one gown per day that would need to be changed when working with different students, two to three boxes of gloves for the teacher, cleaning spray, and paper towels. 

What do the state guidelines say about school reopening?

Alameda County is on the state’s monitoring list for counties with rising coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and increasingly full hospitals. The counties on the list, which includes several in the Bay Area, must open virtually and can’t hold in-person learning until they have been off the list for 14 days in a row.

Is this the final plan?

No. The district is still in negotiations with the Oakland Education Association teachers union and other labor unions to finalize contracts for the upcoming year. A main point of contention is how long distance learning will continue. OEA wants to continue online learning until the city of Oakland records near-zero coronavirus hospitalizations and cases for two weeks, while OUSD wants to switch to a blended learning model after four weeks.

What about charter schools?

Each charter school network will create its own reopening plans. Charter schools that share sites with OUSD schools will align their plans with the district’s guidelines to try and keep the entire campus safe.

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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.