bret harte middle school sign
The exterior of Bret Harte Middle School. Credit: Pete Rosos

With coronavirus rates in Alameda County beginning to recede, Oakland Unified School District is taking steps to prepare for in-person instruction beginning as early as this spring. Whether or not that happens will hinge on the district reaching an agreement with the teacher’s union, and on COVID-19 case rates continuing to decline.

Alameda County remains in the state’s purple tier for COVID-19 spread, the most restrictive category, with more than 27 daily new cases per 100,000 residents (Alameda County will remain in the purple tier until new cases dip below seven per day). Once the case rate falls below 25 per 100,000 residents for five consecutive days, in-person classes up to the sixth grade will be allowed to resume, according to state guidance. Upper grades will be allowed to resume in-person classes once the county has been in the red tier (between four and seven daily new cases per 100,000) for five days. 

With cases from the winter spike beginning to taper off, and teachers included in the next round of vaccines, the district has been facing more pressure to reopen school buildings. Parent groups have formed throughout the state to push districts to allow in-person instruction, while teachers’ unions have opposed reopening until cases are down significantly. Many members of Oakland’s teachers’ union, the Oakland Education Association, want to see Alameda County in the yellow tier, or fewer than 1 new case per day per 100,000 residents, before resuming in-person classes.

Responses to a parent survey that OUSD released in December show that families are split on their feelings about schools reopening: Forty-one percent of the adults surveyed said they plan to send their students back to school for in-person instruction if it becomes available this year. Thirty-one percent were unsure, and 27% said they wouldn’t go back to a physical classroom.

While Oakland Unified hasn’t set a date yet for reopening, the plan OUSD released in December anticipated that schools would allow in-person instruction once Alameda County is in the state’s orange tier, or moderate category, for infection spread. OUSD is also still involved in negotiations with the Oakland Education Association and must come to an agreement with the teachers’ union on working conditions before resuming in-person instruction. 

In the meantime, the district has been preparing school buildings with safety measures for whenever students do return, including stocking up on personal protective equipment, repairing soap dispensers in school bathrooms, and deep cleaning classrooms. District leaders have been evaluating school ventilation systems, and about three-quarters of school sites will be upgraded with more efficient air filters. OUSD has also purchased more than 2,000 air purifiers for school classrooms, said Sailaja Suresh, the district’s director of school operations. And school board members have been hosting informational sessions with families several times a week about reopening, with more planned throughout February.

ousd reopening sessions for families

Oakland Unified School District has several informational meetings scheduled in February to inform families across the city about school reopening.

Hosted by District 7 Director Clifford Thompson
Feb. 9, 2021 from 5:30 to 7 p.m.
RSVP for meeting link

Hosted by District 3 Director VanCedric Williams
Feb. 16, 2021 from 5:30 to 7 p.m.
RSVP for meeting link

Hosted by District 2 Director Aimee Eng
Date TBA
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Students enrolled in pre-K through second grade would be prioritized for in-person instruction under the district’s proposed plan, with third through fifth graders resuming classes after that. Older students would remain primarily in distance learning, and all families would be able to choose to stay in distance learning for the rest of the year. Depending on the number of students who opt for in-person learning, small cohorts would come to school two to four times a week on staggered schedules. Alameda County guidelines for school reopening restrict the small cohorts to 16 people, including students, teachers, aides, or other classroom staff, and students in classrooms would be spaced six feet apart, with everyone wearing masks. 

As a way to encourage districts to move forward, Governor Gavin Newsom in December proposed “Safe Schools for All,” a plan that would give school districts money for reopening their buildings once COVID-19 rates fall below 25 new daily cases per 100,000 residents, and for submitting their reopening plans by February. Newsom’s plan would fund districts up to $450 per student, plus more for districts that enroll higher-needs students, like those who come from low-income families, or are in the foster care system. 

The plan was criticized by urban district leaders across the state, including OUSD Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell, and the group of leaders wrote a letter stating that the plan benefits districts in more rural and affluent counties where COVID-19 rates are lower, and would entrench inequality. The superintendents were also opposed to using school funds for COVID-19 testing and other health care related costs. 

The California legislature has yet to approve Newsom’s proposal, but Johnson-Trammell said at a school board meeting last week that OUSD is preparing to apply for funding from the plan, despite her concerns. 

“I am as anxious as you are for more information, both as the leader of the district and with two kids at home,” she said during the meeting. “Although distance learning will remain an option, I believe that our schools should open for those students and families who want to return in person. The district is preparing to make this happen as quickly and as safely as possible once it is permitted.”

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.