A parent drops off a letter identifying her as a parent of a child at Elmhurst United Middle School in East Oakland before picking up free meals for her student. Credit: Pete Rosos

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Oakland schools are off to a rocky start. Families, teachers, and other school staff are still trying to adjust to distance learning and come to terms with the realization that they may not be returning to school buildings any time soon. Ongoing contract negotiations between the Oakland Education Association and Oakland Unified School District also hung over the first few days of school last week, which added stress and confusion for parents trying to figure out what to expect from their students’ teachers. 

“This is the most unusual school year I’ve ever experienced as an educator and as a parent,” superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell said during a board meeting last week. 

With half of Oakland students lacking a computer or stable internet connection, a major focus of the first week was distributing laptops and hotspots. The district has about 30,000 Chromebook devices and 8,500 wifi hotspots that schools began loaning out last week, said Preston Thomas, OUSD’s chief systems and services officer. At REACH Academy, an elementary school in deep East Oakland, school staff gave out more than 450 computers and hotspots during the first week, and most campuses will continue giving out loaner devices this week.

ousd meal program pick-up locations

North and West Oakland: Hoover Elementary, Sankofa United Elementary, West Oakland Middle 

Central Oakland: Allendale Elementary, Bella Vista Elementary, Cleveland Elementary, Garfield Elementary, La Escuelita, Manzanita SEED/Manzanita Community, Oakland High 

East Oakland: Bret Harte Middle, Castlemont High, Coliseum College Preparatory Academy, Elmhurst United Middle, Esperanza/Korematsu Elementary, Fremont High School, Frick Impact Academy, Horace Mann Elementary, International Community School/Think College Now, Life Academy/United for Success, Madison Park Upper, New Highland/Rise Academy

District officials are still figuring out how to connect with families that are harder to reach.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic. There are families that have COVID-positive members in their family,” Thomas said. “A lot of families have been destabilized, or lost their jobs, or their cell phones may have been disconnected.”

OUSD is also building up its tech support to help students and families troubleshoot problems with devices and web access. One recent issue has been the kid-friendly filters on the internet hotspots, which restrict access to certain content but could also inadvertently block websites or apps that students need to do their work, Thomas said.

The Oakland Undivided campaign, which the district launched with the city and the Oakland Public Education Fund in May, raised more than $12 million over the summer to purchase 25,000 Chromebooks and hotspots for families to keep. Those devices are expected to get to students beginning the week of Aug. 24. 

Another area of concern as classes restart is attendance and enrollment. OUSD administrators are still trying to determine the best way to count students as present and engaged. While the number of students enrolled in the district has changed minimally in comparison with this time in previous years, only about 27,000 students signed into a Zoom call or went online to complete an assignment on the first day of school, which leaves about 9,000 students unaccounted for, or a quarter of the district’s population. Before the pandemic, OUSD counted attendance based on how many students were physically present in the classroom.

“The whole database of how we take attendance is different,” Johnson-Trammell said. “The focus now is ensuring everybody knows how to use the technology and is taking accurate attendance so we have a better baseline of how many kids we are truly missing and not connecting with online.”

Oakland Unified, like other school districts in California, receives money based on daily attendance rates, but a bill passed with the state budget this year holds districts at the same funding levels based on attendance numbers before schools closed. However, OUSD will still be required to develop a distance learning policy and report its attendance numbers.

If a student appears on a Zoom call, completes an assignment on one of the online learning platforms, or otherwise connects with their teacher during the day, they’ll be marked as present. 

The district also came to a tentative agreement with the teachers union Wednesday, with details released late Friday regarding instructional time and professional development. If approved by union members, teachers would work six hours and 10 minutes a day, which is five to 20 minutes shorter than a pre-pandemic work day. 

Students’ live instruction time, in the tentative agreement,varies based on grade level: Pre-k and kindergarten students would receive 80 minutes four days a week and 60 minutes on one day; first through third graders receive 110 minutes four days a week and 90 minutes one day; fourth and fifth graders sit for 120 minutes of live instruction four days a week and 90 minutes on one day per week; and sixth through 12th graders get 150 minutes four days out of the week and 60 minutes on one day per week.

For the next six weeks, teachers will have extra planning time on Wednesdays, which is when students will have less live instruction. During the hours that educators aren’t teaching or working with students in small groups, they’ll be creating lesson plans, doing professional development, making phone calls to families, or doing other prep work.

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Substitute teachers, who weren’t able to work once schools closed in March, will also have opportunities to support full-time teachers in distance learning, like leading virtual breakout rooms, or providing one-on-one help with assignments. 

During the first week of school, all students had 60 minutes, or less, per day of live instruction. Heading into the second week of school, teachers will follow the guidelines laid out in the tentative contract. OEA is expected to vote on the contract by Wednesday.

As one of the earliest districts in the Bay Area to return to school, OUSD’s start provides a preview as to how reopenings could go across the region. It could also provide lessons for other districts grappling with the complexities of distance learning.

“While we’ve made significant progress, there is still much to do to improve the experience for students and for families,” Johnson-Trammell said. 

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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.