desks spaced apart in a classroom
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

How do Oaklanders feel about OUSD’s plans for fall semester? We asked you to weigh in, and received dozens of responses from families, teachers, taxpayers, and school staff about the district’s plan to start class Aug. 10 with at least one more month of distance learning before allowing students back in small groups. 

Teachers told us they’re worried about how they’ll manage instruction for two groups of students—those who want to do distance learning and those who want to come to class. Parents wonder how their children are developing socially since they’re at home all day. Students asked how they’ll be able to keep up with rigorous courses through remote learning. We interviewed several Oakland residents for more insight into their perspectives.

Do you have concerns about OUSD’s plan?

Jason Gilbertson, special education instructor: Some of my issues are with students with special needs returning. Many of these children cannot understand nor comprehend what is happening in our world, nor do they understand the true dangers of Covid-19 to people of all ages. Many students in this population cannot speak for themselves or make relevant decisions to protect themselves, especially when asked by an adult in the heat of the moment. Many of these students can’t explain their symptoms in any manner, yet we’re asking them to come to school and explain their symptoms. That’s really frightening. We have students who are intellectually disabled or nonverbal, or may not know how to use their devices. 

Peggy Lee, parent of a special needs child: The thing that really alarms me is that there’s no tie for these stages of reopening to what’s going on in the broader Oakland community. There’s no health indications for what constitutes Phase One, or Phase Two. They’re saying everybody’s going to do distance learning for two to four weeks; that’s a really arbitrary number. There’s no rationale for two to four weeks. What if community spread continues to be high? What if we continue to be a hotspot here? That’s very worrisome to me.

William Mendez, student at Oakland Technical High School: I think that this four-week method of trying to get some students back to Oakland Tech is not going to work. It’s just a recipe for disaster. I think what the school district is doing is very reckless, inconsiderate, and could cost even more potential lives, if nothing is taken into consideration in terms of safety. We saw what happened here after opening after supposedly flattening the curve—we’re back to where we were in March. 

Gina Fan, parent of two OUSD students: My fear is with the bureaucracy we have in place, we won’t be able to think as creatively or quickly to implement certain things. I understand there are labor unions, I understand from a public health perspective, you may have concerns about having too many adults on campus. I don’t know how to have small groups, in-person pods, without having more adults on campus. Teachers may opt out of being in person, and we may need more people if we’re going to have small groups on campus. 

Daniel Kingsbook, elementary school teacher: Dynamics already exist in classrooms around equality and equity. In my experience, remote learning seems to just amplify whatever those dynamics already were. Kids with resources, who have a computer and a home office, really could thrive. Kids who are in houses where they’re balancing doing childcare duty, and there are multiple adults sharing the same room and space where they’re trying to join Zoom meetings, they struggled more. Teachers are going to be super overburdened; now they’re going to be faced with potentially having to do extra work between creating online lesson plans as well as accommodating students coming in in some intermittent fashion. 

Roberta Masliyah, parent of two OUSD students: I’m just worried. I’m worried that I don’t know how long this is going to last. It’s not easy for parents. I often think about families who have different challenges and they need their children to have that daily support. It’s just a crappy situation. OUSD is a school district that has faced a lot of criticism. They’ve had their challenges. And this is a big challenge. I don’t know how they’re going to do it. I’m hopeful. But I don’t know what that’s going to look like. 

Does this plan work for you and your family?

George Griffin, substitute teacher: It puts us substitutes out of work. In mid-March, Oakland Unified did the right thing and sent everybody home. The mainstream teachers kept their jobs because they were doing teleclasses. Greatly to Oakland Unified’s credit, they kept paying us as subs even though we weren’t working. I don’t know if Oakland can keep doing that. A lot of us won’t be working at all until they resume in-person classes. We substitutes should not be the highest priority or close to it, but I’m trying to not be heartbroken about not getting to teach, about being likely unemployed in a major recession.

Daniel, elementary school teacher: I think the plan that OUSD is offering is just concrete enough to provide structure that appeases those who really want to have some expectancy around how things might work while also providing flexibility. If you want to do fully remote learning, that is an option to you. No one is going to force you to come back. It seems that resources are being made available for those who want to be in a classroom.

Jason, special education instructor: For students who are handicapped with severe autism, I’m really not sure how the system is going to work for them. I really don’t. I’m more fearful for their return to campuses than I am for them not getting education from remote learning. I know that in-person instruction is not going to be as great. Especially for me. I’m not going to be able to sit down with a student and help them learn to read. I need to stay six feet away. I need to protect myself, that student, and that student’s family. There is a huge conversation that needs to take place before we send special education students back to school. There’s all these things we really need to talk about in regards to bringing our most vulnerable and immunocompromised students first before anybody else and I feel like we’re not talking about that.

Roberta, parent of two OUSD students: The saving grace is that we have great internet. But it’s challenging. My kids love going to school. They love their teachers, they love being with their friends and not being able to say goodbye to them at the end of the school year, which traditionally they would have, felt like they were cheated. We’re lucky that we’re in a position where we can help our kids and have one of us home to do it. I understand that a lot of parents need their kids to be back in school but it just has to be a safe environment for everyone. There’s no great solution to this right now. I think we just have to do the best that we can. It’s just a crappy situation all around. 

William, Oakland Technical High School student: The damage done to my education as a result of the closing of schools is significant. I don’t think I’d be as well prepared for next year if it wasn’t for the fact that I had a tutor. On English and history I’m fine, and if it wasn’t for math and science I’d be fine. Next year I’m taking more intensive math classes but I have a tutor to help me. I can’t speak for other students who don’t have a tutor. I think the school’s doing a very poor job of making sure teachers can do distance learning.

What would be ideal for you?

Peggy, parent of a special needs child: The main thing that I’m worried about is whatever happens this academic year, they’re going to push to advance him to the next school grade. If they could just write into his IEP (individualized education program, a document created for children with special needs) [that] if we have any kind of remote learning I can have him repeat a year, I would be a lot less stressed. It’s a really different dynamic right now. Why can’t we give our kids another year? Distance learning is just not going to be as effective as in-person learning. If I knew he could be in his class for one more year and get that enrichment and instruction, I would feel a lot better. 

Jason, special education instructor: I would like to see special education come in at a later phase in Oakland’s plan. Healthy general-education students should come into schools first and do these small-group cohorts, because that allows the sites themselves, as well as the district, to work out the kinks of how the system is going to work. Once we start accumulating that information, we’ll have better guidance to allow the special education department to come in and work more safely with our students. That will allow us to bring our students back in the safest environment we can, rather than bringing in the neediest and most vulnerable as soon as possible. 

William, Oakland Technical High School student: In my opinion, everyone should be staying indoors as much as possible. This virus isn’t well-understood. I’d say, “Okay, we won’t open schools until we get a guaranteed vaccine,” whether that be in January or next school year. It’s not just the students who could be exposed to the virus. It’s teachers and other people. 

Roberta, parent of two OUSD students: We’re planning to talk to other parents about the possibility of having two or three of their friends perhaps do part of their homework together in the backyard while social distancing, so they have that socialization. For us, at this point, having their friends around is just as important as the academics. It really lifts their spirits up when they see their friends.

Gina, parent of two OUSD students: I think all we can do is proceed with caution with the current, best scientific information. It’s good that OUSD is allowing people to opt into distance learning if that is the level risk that their household is comfortable with. Depending on the age of the child, I just hope that the curriculum for all distance learning is rigorous enough. 

Daniel, elementary school teacher: I hope some of the things that come out of this exercise persist. One thing is the use of technology-based learning. We live with Silicon Valley in our backyard. We’ve been talking about technology-based learning, and this is going to be the year that this grows up. I hope society as a whole can identify what’s working well and incorporate that into the future.

Do you feel comfortable going back to the classroom or sending your children back to the classroom?

Peggy, parent of a special needs child: I think it would really depend on what is happening in the greater community. If we were starting to see the spread and infection rates go down, and if I was feeling confident that the school had safety procedures in place and adequate supplies. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had to all pool together, pre-pandemic times, to get cleaning supplies for the teachers. We’d have to see investment of a scale that we haven’t seen before in our schools. I don’t know where that political will is going to come from. 

Jason, special education instructor: We’re being asked to go straight to the front lines, five days a week, full instructional days, with the most vulnerable students in education. The concern is that if we ourselves get sick, we go into school and we’re pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic, we might get that immunocompromised student sick. That might kill him or her. They might take COVID back to his or her home and get their grandparent sick. Or their parent or guardian and they might get a severe case and die. Then what happens?

Gina, parent of two OUSD students: Yes, I’m prepared to do that. I’m a big proponent of public school as opposed to private. I understand where people are coming from setting up pods and private teaching, but I firmly believe public education is a good education and the foundation of a strong democracy. If we talk about things like equality and having an even playing field for everybody, that’s really critical. I would not want this to become a precedent—that every time a pandemic or potential pandemic happens, we’re all going to just stop education. To me, it’s just too important. 

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.