little girl in her bedroom
Five-year-old Peyton Johnson completed her first day of kindergarten from her bedroom. Credit: Courtesy Sandy Johnson

On the first day of school, students usually fret about their outfits, their class schedules, or what teachers they have, but Monday brought a new set of challenges for the Oakland Unified School District’s 35,000 students. The county and state are requiring distance learning until coronavirus cases in Alameda County recede, so teachers once again taught through Zoom calls while parents tried to troubleshoot technology issues and teens FaceTimed with their friends between classes. 

The Oaklandside followed two parents, two students, a teacher, and a school principal, as they navigated the first day of school. Here’s what happened.

Waking up and preparing for the day

7 a.m.: Samantha Pal, a junior at Oakland High School, wakes up to a message from her cellular service provider, Verizon, that her data has been turned off. “I tried restarting my phone multiple times, I tried turning on the data myself. I’m not even sure how I’m going to be able to log into my class later,” she said.

7 a.m.: Sandy Johnson’s daughter, Peyton, is awake before her mom’s alarm goes off. Peyton is excited to meet all her new kindergarten classmates at Chabot Elementary School, even if virtually. “Being stuck in the house for so long, and not having any interaction in a school setting, that’s what she was really missing,” Johnson said. 

8 a.m.: Principal Lillian Hsu starts a video call with teachers and staff at Fruitvale’s Latitude 37.8 High School before they meet with students remotely. As an icebreaker, the educators talk about their own first days of 9th grade. Hsu attended high school in New Jersey in the mid-1990s and reminisces about wearing contact lenses for the first time.

8: a.m.: Jessica Jung, a third-grade teacher at Bridges Academy at Melrose, takes her 4-year-old son to preschool and gets back home to prepare for her class Zoom call at 9. Her iPhone is broken, and she worries about getting it fixed in time for meetings with parents and colleagues throughout the day.

boy sitting at table in front of computer
Eight-year-old My’Kell McDaniel sits at his kitchen table during a class Zoom call on the first day of school. Credit: Courtesy Michael McDaniel, Jr.

8:20 a.m.: Parent Michael McDaniel catches his 11-year-old son lounging in the bathroom with toothpaste on his face, 10 minutes before he’s supposed to be on camera with his classmates at BayTech Charter School. “I’m like, ‘Is this where you’re supposed to be right now?’ Let’s fix that.” McDaniel’s 8-year-old son already had trouble connecting with his Zoom call, and dad had to troubleshoot for half an hour at the kitchen table before the third grader’s call with his classmates at Cox Academy, also a charter school near the Oakland Zoo. 

“I’ve noticed that the hardest part for them is that the environment that you play and sleep in is the same one you go to school in now,” McDaniel said. “You’re at your relaxation place, but you’ve got to focus.” 

First class: calls and complications

little girl waving to classmates on laptop
Five-year-old Peyton Johnson waves to her classmates on a Zoom call on the first day of school. Credit: Courtesy Sandy Johnson

9 a.m.: About 17 third graders join teacher Jessica Jung’s virtual call, out of a class of 26 students. She spends the first 15 minutes helping parents and students log on. Several kids were using their parents’ cell phones or tablets to participate, Jung said. “That’s something we’ll have to work through, because their independent work assignments are all on the computer.” With just a laptop, she struggles to keep track of her students on the screen while also conducting a lesson, and wonders if she can somehow get a second monitor today. 

9 a.m.: Peyton, the kindergartener, meets with her classmates over Zoom and introduces herself from a desk in her bedroom. Afterward, she takes a break to eat a snack and walk her family’s dogs.

10 a.m.: Jessica Jung takes her shattered iPhone to get the screen repaired. While her phone is being fixed, she stops by a friend’s house to pick up a second monitor. With her phone repair and the cost of upgrading her home internet service, Jung said her family has spent a couple hundred dollars in the last few weeks to ensure she could work from home.

“It makes me wonder, for other educators, how does this impact them? How does it impact the quality of work that they’re able to do?” she said.

teacher smiling in front of computer monitor
Jessica Jung, a third grade teacher at Bridges Academy at Melrose in Oakland, prepares for her virtual class on the first day of school. Credit: Courtesy Jessica Jung

10 a.m.: Samantha Pal, the Oakland High School student, leaves her house to go with her cousin to the dentist’s office, where her cousin is having her wisdom teeth removed. Pal stays in the backseat of the car to join her chemistry class via Zoom, which she connects to from her cousin’s phone since her own phone is not working. 

10 a.m.: Jessica Ramos, a senior at Skyline High School, joins her AP Statistics class on a video call. She works from a computer right next to the hotspot she received from the school district, and the call goes smoothly. 

11 a.m.: Ramos joins a meeting on the Oakland Undivided campaign, where she provides a student’s perspective on the digital divide. The campaign, which raised $12.5 million this summer, will provide 25,000 Chromebooks and thousands of internet hotspots to Oakland students to guarantee they can all access the internet and participate in distance learning. The devices are expected to be delivered in the third week of school. Meanwhile, the district will provide temporary devices. During the meeting, they discuss how a spate of shootings in Oakland over the past week could impact participation in distance learning.

“A lot of lives have been lost because of gun violence this week. There’s a lot of families that are struggling or going through a lot of emotions, and there might not be pickups for devices this week,” Ramos said.

11 a.m.: Sandy Johnson swaps her daughter Peyton’s Chromebook with her own personal laptop to make it easier to pull up the links to her class assignments and videos. The school-issued Chromebook doesn’t have access to email, so when Peyton’s teacher emails a link to a video to watch, it’s harder to get to them. They decide that they’ll use the Chromebook for Peyton’s Zoom calls and the other laptop for assignments. Peyton watches a video about the letter ‘O.’

girl coloring at desk
Peyton Johnson, 5, colors in the letter ‘O’ as part of an assignment on the first day of school. Credit: Courtesy Sandy Johnson

11 a.m.: Lillian Hsu, the principal, makes a call to a freshman she advises. They discuss all the platforms they’re using during distance learning, including Gmail and Zoom. “It was a little awkward to do both: getting to know you and the technical pieces at the same time. What they named being most nervous about was whether they’d make friends in this online space.”

11 a.m.: Oakland High School 11th grader Samantha Pal is dropped from her class Zoom call and it takes her a few minutes to get back on because she forgot the password to her cousin’s phone, which she was using to participate. While in a breakout room, Pal turns on her camera and gets to see her friend’s pet snake. The group decides, along with their teacher, that pineapple on pizza is a good thing.

Afternoon assignments and the end of the school day

12 p.m.: Michael McDaniel’s older son waits for a noon class to begin on Zoom, but the teacher never shows. McDaniel, a retired veteran, thinks it’s because the teacher didn’t hear about a schedule change that had been sent to students.

boy sitting at desk on laptop
Amari McDaniel, 11, participates in his class Zoom call on the first day of school. Credit: Courtesy Michael McDaniel

12 p.m.: Samantha Pal’s chemistry class ends early, so she goes on Google Classroom, a platform that teachers use to upload and distribute assignments virtually, to get a start on homework. “This whole day made me feel like I’m doing a lazy version of learning,” she said. “Since I only have one class a day and two free periods, I think I’ll be able to manage my school work much better and spend my free time doing things like taking a nap, writing more poetry, and spending time helping my nephew who started middle school.”

1 p.m.: Chabot elementary parent Sandy Johnson’s dog threw up on the laptop they were planning to use for Peyton’s class assignments and it stopped working. They went back to using the Chromebook. Johnson used her phone to look at the Google Doc that had her daughter’s assignments, then went to the Chromebook to search for the video on YouTube, a PBS read-along of the book “You Matter.”

1 p.m.: Third-grade teacher Jessica Jung makes phone calls to the families of nine students who didn’t join the morning class call. She helps two of those families fill out the district’s technology needs survey, so they can receive a laptop and a hotspot. Since the survey is on the internet, Jung asks them the questions over the phone in Spanish and fills out the survey for them from her computer.

2 p.m.: Another teacher misses a class for Michael McDaniel’s 6th grader, which McDaniel again chalks up to miscommunication about the day’s schedule. “That’s the kind of stuff you run into with this platform. Hopefully they’ll have that resolved tomorrow,” he said.

2 p.m.: Peyton, the kindergartener, watches a yoga video suggested by her teacher and imitates the poses with her dad before getting tired. “Being home made it harder for us to focus, as there were distractions,” her mom Sandy Johnson said. “She wanted to play with her toys and watch TV and go bike riding.”

2:15 p.m.: Jessica Ramos, the Skyline senior, takes some time to prepare for a presentation she’ll be giving during the district’s board meeting on Wednesday, the first meeting of the school year. Ramos is one of two student directors on OUSD’s board of education. After her meeting prep, she opened her application to the University of California to continue filling it out. Her second day of school will be like the first, with one class and lots of free time.

girl smiling in front of laptop
Jessica Ramos, a senior at Skyline High School, lots onto her computer for her AP Statistics class on the first day of school. Credit: Courtesy Jessica Ramos

“I never thought my senior year was going to be like this. It just doesn’t feel real—it feels like the summer with summer classes,” she said.

3:30 p.m.: Principal Lillian Hsu has a meeting with her staff to discuss how they’ll be reaching out to students that miss their classes or join late for the rest of the week. Afterward, she reads some of the responses to a survey that was distributed to the school’s 150 students on their concerns about schooling in a pandemic.

“They have so many questions: Will the pandemic last through graduation? What if it lasts longer than months, even years? I’m thinking about what we need to do in the days and weeks ahead to hold space for our kids emotionally.”

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.