Vernetta Woods and her son Aidan, playing in their backyard
Vernetta Woods quit her job in August so she could have more time to help her son Aidan with his virtual learning. Credit: Amir Aziz

Vernetta Woods doesn’t have time to dwell on the coronavirus. As the mom of an eight-year-old boy, most of her time is spent supervising his distance learning, tracking down resources to help him with his autism, and making sure he has enough time to play in their backyard and stay active.

In August, she stepped down from her job as a community leader for Oakland Rising, a progressive political organization, to focus on how she could help her son with school. Even though adjusting to distance learning has been exhausting, Woods said she doesn’t feel comfortable sending her son for in-person instruction if Oakland schools reopen early next year. She doesn’t want to risk him getting sick and possibly upending their lives. 

“We live on an avenue where it’s nothing but traffic, drugs, police up and down the street, high speed chases, shootings,” she said. “I have other stuff to be worried about. I’m not going to be worried about coronavirus.”

With Oakland Unified School District officials making plans to reopen school buildings in spring 2021, many parents are faced with a tough decision. The Woods and other families are weighing safety concerns against the shortcomings of distance learning, doubts about whether schools will be able to enforce safety precautions, and the toll that isolation has had on their children for the past nine months. 

But for other Oakland families, watching their students regress in school and struggle with virtual learning is a big reason to return to in-person schooling. Some parents, including those in a parent group formed this fall to call for OUSD schools to reopen, point to research showing that schools are not big spreaders of coronavirus, and that kids have lower transmission rates. The group, OUSD Parents for Transparency and Safe Reopening, has been pressuring the school district and the teachers’ union, the Oakland Education Association, to come to an agreement that will reopen schools as soon as the state allows it. OUSD and OEA have both set reopening standards stricter than those of the state.

“It is imperative that OUSD and OEA negotiate and reach an agreement about reopening now, even while we’re in the purple tier,” said Megan Bacigalupi, one of the group’s leaders. “So that all the planning and necessary work can occur expeditiously once reopening is permitted.”

The school district released a reopening plan earlier this month that would allow the elementary school students to go back to school for a few days a week, while sixth through 12th graders would largely stay in distance learning. The plan initially set a target date of Jan. 25 for reopening, but superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell this week announced that date would have to be pushed back because of the extreme spread of coronavirus in Alameda County.

OUSD survey results show ambiguity

A survey sent out by the district to gauge interest in school reopening shows that parents are divided over the issue. 

Of the roughly 9,200 responses, about 42% said they plan to send their children to school for in-person instruction, whenever the district makes this an option. Thirty-one percent said they weren’t sure, and 27% said they would not return for in-person instruction. 

Bacigalupi, who has two children at Crocker Highlands Elementary School, noted that the district survey began circulating more than a month before the reopening plan was published, so it’s possible that some respondents who were wary of returning to in-person instruction could have changed their minds between then and now.

Race and class disparities in the survey data may have also skewed the results. Although white students make up less than 12% of all OUSD students, white parents were the largest racial group to respond to the survey, at 27%. And while last year roughly 71% of students received free or reduced-priced lunch, one measure of poverty in a school district, only about 37% of survey respondents were from this group. 

Black and Latino families make up more than 65% of the school district, and just 29% of survey responses. Those that participated in the survey were fairly evenly divided between opposing, favoring, and being unsure about sending their kids back to the classroom. By comparison, a clear majority (55%) of white families surveyed said they favor a return to school. Just 13% said they would not, and 31% were unsure.

Shelley Gonzalez, who has two children at Edna Brewer Middle School and serves as a parent leader on Brewer’s school site council, said the survey results are not a surprise. But, Gonzalez added, considerations should also be made for families with varying needs across the district.

“Consider the day laborer that needs their child to be in school for supervision purposes, or the English language learners or our special education students that need to be hands-on,” she said. “There needs to be physical contact for certain types of learners.”

students in distance learning
Shelley Gonzalez’s two children, in 6th and 7th grade at Edna Brewer Middle School, spend their days learning side by side. Credit: Courtesy Shelley Gonzalez

Distance learning for her own children, a sixth grader and a seventh grader at Brewer, has not been smooth. With two kids learning over Zoom simultaneously, and Gonzalez leading virtual classes of her own as a Zumba instructor, the wi-fi bandwidth at home gets overloaded. Sometimes her kids turn off the video on their calls to make the connection stronger, only to be told by their teachers that their videos must be on. The more time they have to spend trying to troubleshoot, the less time they have to focus on the content of their lessons, she said. 

Although distance learning has been a struggle for her family, Gonzalez said she doesn’t want her children returning to school for in-person learning until she sees more solid science about how COVID-19 spreads in schools. 

Assessing the risk based on existing science is difficult

About 100 parents and their children gathered at Frank Ogawa Plaza on a Saturday morning earlier this month for a rally to reopen schools in Oakland. They carried dozens of signs imploring officials to “follow the science” and allow elementary school students to go back to class. 

“Having schools summarily closed because of emotional rhetoric not based upon scientific data is something that we cannot accept as parents,” said Clarence Hunt, a father who brought his Chabot Elementary third grader to the rally. 

Hunt, who is Black, also rejects the idea that the push to reopen schools is mainly coming from white families in Oakland. “There’s a lot of Black and Hispanic parents of all economic status that want to have our schools eopen, in addition to a lot of teachers.”

parents at rally in frank ogawa plaza
Dozens of parents and their children convened on Frank Ogawa Plaza on Saturday, Dec. 5 for a rally calling on Oakland Unified School District to reopen schools. Credit: Ashley McBride

Early studies about COVID-19 in children showed that kids had lower transmission rates, death rates, and hospitalization rates than adults, according to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More recent research, however, has shown that children can transmit the virus at rates similar to adults, and are also more likely to be asymptomatic.

“I’m really concerned, and have been since the beginning, about the people to whom I would ordinarily entrust my kid. That’s his teacher, the classroom aide, custodial staff, food service staff,” said Genie Gratto, mom to a first grader at Crocker Highlands Elementary School. 

If she had to make a decision today, Gratto said she would keep her son home from school, but she and her husband talk constantly about new developments in research about the risk that COVID-19 poses to children. 

The CDC guidance also emphasizes that the risk of reopening schools is lowest when transmission in the community is lowest. Alameda County is experiencing its worst surge in case numbers since the pandemic began, and rates in Oakland are higher than in the county overall.

In some Black and Brown families, knowing that coronavirus has had a disproportionate impact on their communities is another concern when considering whether to send their children back to school. East Oakland’s flatland neighborhoods, which are home to many of the city’s Black and Latino families, have the highest COVID rates in the entire county. Many people of color may also be skeptical of the health care industry because of past mistreatment and the industry’s history of harming marginalized communities for scientific gains.

Woods, whose 8-year-old attends Greenleaf Elementary School, said her East Oakland neighborhood isn’t as informed about coronavirus or the vaccine. 

“They’re not coming to our communities and giving us accurate information. That’s why outcomes turn out the way they do,” she said. 

Kids need social interaction

One issue parents on different sides of the reopening debate agree on is the need to alleviate the stress and isolation their kids are experiencing. In the OUSD parent survey, students’ social and emotional needs was the top reason that parents wanted to send their children back to school. 

Cooper Wright, an 8-year-old who attended the reopen rally with his mom, talked about how lonely it is to learn remotely. “In normal school, you’re able to make friends. You can’t really make friends on Zoom,” he said.

Virtual learning doesn’t allow students to be around others their age, which can hurt their social development, said Wendi Williams, a dean and professor at the school of education at Mills College. To help offset the loss of social time with peers, she recommends that families do projects together outside of school assignments, like cooking or a home repair project. Older siblings helping younger siblings with work can also help them bond.

Vernetta Woods and her son Aidan, playing in their backyard
Vernetta Woods, mom to 8-year-old Aidan, set up a basketball court for her son to remain active during distance learning. Credit: Amir Aziz

“I think that our families are really tasked to be everything to everyone in the family right now. And this is a tough one, because they’re also very overstretched and overextended,” said Williams, whose research focuses on education and well-being in youth.

She also suggests taking kids outside for fresh air and to let them run around and burn off some of their energy.

Gonzalez, the Brewer mom, encourages her kids to participate in the virtual clubs and other social activities that the school offers for students, but it’s an inferior replacement for real-life interactions. They go on bike rides at Bella Vista Park, take Zoom calls with extended family, and cook together.

“They need a bestie. They need a locker. They need that experience that allows them to have different types of conversations and interactions,” said Gonzalez, who also has four adult children. 

Hunt, the dad who is an advocate for reopening, said his 9-year-old gets headaches from the hours of time he spends in front of a screen each day, and has recently had to get glasses because of the impact on his eyesight. Hunt runs a human resources company in Oakland, and takes his son to a gym in Alameda that provides childcare during the week so he can be supervised with his distance learning work. 

“I’m not able to spend the time with him that I would like to, to help him with his work,” he said. “I look in his eyes and see so much sadness from just being trapped in a situation where he’s not able to go to school.”

Correction: we misspelled Genie Gratto’s last name. We regret the error.

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.