Chela Delgado, her partner and their kids at their home before at-home school starts. Credit: Amir Aziz

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It’s been nearly a year since most Oakland Unified School District students have learned in a classroom, but momentum is building towards a possible reopening as early as this month. 

Teachers are getting vaccinated, California is offering extra funding to schools that reopen by April, and last week the OUSD school board said it aims to open elementary school campuses by mid-to-late March. Mayor Libby Schaaf, who over the past few months had been less vocal about pressuring the district to reopen, spoke at a rally Sunday urging the school district to speed things up. 

But big barriers remain: The school district and the Oakland Education Association teachers’ union don’t agree yet about how in-person learning could restart, or when. Some families and teachers don’t think it’s safe to return to the classroom anytime soon, and doubt the school district can put in place the safety measures recommended by federal and state authorities. Reopening schools successfully in Oakland will require addressing these concerns.

The Oaklandside set out to better understand what’s at stake with schools reopening this semester: How are students doing academically with distance learning? How’s their mental and emotional well-being? What is the safest way to bring students back, and what can OUSD learn from private schools that have already opened in Oakland?

Social isolation has taken an ‘unreal’ toll on students’ mental health

Few things are clear-cut in the reopening debate, but here’s one: School closures have majorly impacted students socially and emotionally.

Students are often relegated to their bedrooms or other spaces in their homes, staring at a laptop screen and clicking between Zoom and Google Classroom windows. Some teachers have tried to help students connect with each other outside class time, offering Zoom breakout rooms at the end of the school day for students to chat about whatever they want, for instance, but it’s no substitute for the real thing.

“No matter how hard the teachers are working to create space…it’s just not the same,” said Chela Delgado, a teacher at Coliseum College Prep Academy and a mom of two elementary schoolers. “For our kids who are really social learners, who get validation from being around other people, it’s difficult to recreate.”

Delgado said she’s watched her own children, second and fourth graders at Melrose Leadership Academy, lose motivation to finish their work. When Xavier, her 9-year-old, faces a small setback like getting kicked off of Zoom or losing track of a link he needs, there’s “a whole production about getting him re-engaged,” she said. “It’s just been so long.”

Another mom, Koren Temple Perry, has a kindergartener at Crocker Highlands Elementary School and said she didn’t anticipate how much she’d have to get involved in her 6-year-old’s distance learning. She’s reduced her hours at work so that she can dedicate more time to helping her daughter, Sophia, with school work. 

“I’m helping with the academic stuff, but I can’t change the fact that my 6-year-old is sitting in her room by herself,” Temple Perry said. 

In the fall, Temple Perry organized a playdate for her daughter with some other families in her class, and her daughter described the outing as “the best day of her life.”

“That really broke my heart,” Temple Perry said. 

Dr. Katie D’Harlingue, a pediatrician who serves families at a clinic in Fruitvale, said she’s seen an alarming increase in young patients reporting feeling depressed or anxious, or expressing thoughts of self-harm. They tie their feelings to schools being closed, she said. 

“When I talk to them, they said, ‘I miss my friends,’ ‘I want to go back to school,’ ‘I don’t like doing school online,’” she said. “The incredible trauma that I have witnessed with my patients and their families is just unreal.”

Temple Perry, Dr. D’Harlingue, and other parents we spoke to in Oakland want to see OUSD restart in-person instruction as soon as possible, but say families should be offered a choice. They believe families that feel uncomfortable should be able to stay home, but feel that keeping school buildings shuttered for everyone is unfair to students who have less access to technology, or who don’t have a comfortable, quiet space to do their work. Remote learning also requires parents, mostly moms, to stay on top of their students’ work, making it harder to do their professional jobs. 

December was the last time OUSD surveyed parents about whether or not they felt ready to return to school, when Alameda County and the Bay Area were in the midst of a winter COVID-19 surge. The responses, which did not reflect OUSD’s diversity, showed that parents were fairly split. About 41% said they would go back given the choice, 31% were unsure, and 27% said they would not. 

Of those who said no, the biggest concern was over whether proposed safety measures would be enough, and another significant portion wanted to wait until a vaccine was available. 

Families who said they were ready to send their students back were most concerned about their children’s academic and social needs. 

In February, the district distributed another survey along the same lines to elementary school parents. Those responses have not been released yet.

Despite fears, remote learning has not had uniformly negative impacts on student learning 

To monitor students’ academic progress this year, OUSD has periodically tested students in literacy and reading levels, said Wesley Jacques, the district’s executive director of academics and instructional innovation. 

“Students lost a third of their year of schooling last year. There clearly has been an impact,” he said, “and we’re still trying to understand how much.”

For sixth to 12th graders, Jacques said reading assessment scores this year are similar to the past few years. “We’re not seeing the large dip that some people might predict,” he said. 

Students in kindergarten through second grade have actually shown growth in their overall literacy levels this year, Jacques said. 

In first grade, the percentage of students who were reading below their grade level dropped from about 58% to 52% since the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. In second grade, that percentage dropped from about 65% to 58% during the same time period, according to district data.

But test scores are only one barometer of academic progress, and averages don’t reflect individual students who may be falling far behind. Jacques said the district is implementing a new literacy program across elementary schools, and making literacy a big focus of summer school this year. He pointed out that current second graders could receive more intensive support, since first grade is a critical year for learning to read and the second half of first grade was interrupted last year. 

Chronic absenteeism has soared at some schools

Castlemont High School. Credit: Pete Rosos

Some students, especially high schoolers, have more on their plates due to the pandemic, like jobs to help support their families or taking care of younger siblings, pulling them away from virtual classes.

Jessica Ramos, a senior at Skyline High School and one of the student representatives on the Oakland school board, said she’s seen some of her grades fall this year. She has a job as a tutor and works during the 30-minute period that was built into Skyline’s distance learning schedule for students to get extra help with their classes. Ramos, a senior, empathizes with peers who have to choose between education and making money to live.

“Should I go to work and help out my family or stay home and help take care of my family?” Ramos said students ask themselves. “Of course they’re not going to be able to put their education up front.”

Since students are not coming to campus, OUSD attendance is monitored differently these days. If a student logs in and is present during their live class, logs into a learning platform like Google Classroom, checks in with their teacher through email or by phone, or turns in an assignment during the day, the student will be marked as present. 

Because students are no longer meeting face-to-face with teachers and class schedules are different under distance learning, chronic absenteeism, which the district defines as a student missing school more than 10% of the time, has increased greatly at some OUSD schools.

At Fremont High School in East Oakland, about 65% of students have been chronically absent this year. Co-principal Tom Skjervheim said that number is high partly due to the way students are marked absent during distance learning. His school designed a flexible schedule this year, with one class per day, so that students who have to work or attend to other responsibilities can more easily plan around school. But that also means if they miss just one class period during the week, their attendance drops to 80%. Before the pandemic, when students had seven classes a day, he said, they would have to miss seven class periods in a week to drop to 80%. 

Skjervheim also noted that Fremont serves a significant population of students who need extra support. About 30% of the students there are recent immigrants, and about 10% have unstable housing or are homeless.

The school community is also reeling from the deaths of six students who have been lost to violence since January 2020, Skjervheim noted. 

OUSD has responded to chronic absenteeism by setting up small learning pods at schools across the district for groups of up to 12 students who have stopped engaging with distance learning. The pods, which meet on school campuses, are meant to provide a safe, secure space for students identified by school staff as needing extra support. Next week, Fremont High will begin a small learning pod for seniors who need to get back on track to graduate. 

“This year it’s been so much harder because we don’t have access to those students in the way that we did before, and the financial need is so much more severe for them,” said Skjervheim. 

Castlemont High School has also seen more chronic absences, leaving teachers at the East Oakland school struggling to find new ways to reach students who’ve disappeared. Just over half of Castlemont students have attended class less than 90% of the time. 

Lillian Jacobson, who teaches urban design at Castlemont, noticed that when she creates more hands-on projects for her students, they’re more engaged. Last semester, she had her 11th graders design planter boxes for a nearby affordable housing complex. In the end, every single one of her students turned in decorated planter boxes, complete with a report on the type of plant it could hold and how to care for it. On a typical assignment, Jacobsen said, the completion rate is about 50%.

Castlemont has also offered work-based learning or internships to disengaged students, Jacobson said. 

Jacobson assigned her 10th graders a gardening project. Students chose to grow beets, carrots, onions, radishes, potatoes, or other vegetables, and will film a cooking video with the food they cultivate. 

“Giving students both a way to do a real-world project, but also do something with their hands when they’re feeling so exhausted with all of the online learning, is successful,” Jacobson said. 

The school has a small learning pod on campus targeting newcomer students, unhoused youth, foster students, and special education students, said Dionne Embry, who teaches English there. This semester, her students are reading excerpts from “Our America: Life And Death On The South Side Of Chicago,” a 1997 nonfiction book about two boys living in housing projects in Chicago. She finds that now, more than ever, lessons work better when students can relate to them.

With COVID in the air, what makes a classroom safer?

An empty classroom at West Oakland Middle School. Credit: Pete Rosos

School buildings in Oakland can reopen safely, said UCSF Benioff pediatrician Dr. Noemi Spinazzi, as long as certain measures are in place: keep symptomatic students home, use masks, physical distancing, adequate ventilation and air filtering, and routine COVID-19 testing, and vaccinate anyone who’s eligible. As vaccine rates in Alameda County increase, case rates will continue to decline, she added.

Dr. Spinazzi challenged the idea that children will resist keeping their masks on. They learn to wear glasses, hearing aids, and other things on their faces, and can learn to tolerate masks too, she noted. 

But no safety measure is enough on its own, she said, and it’s critical that schools implement as many as possible. 

“The big thing to emphasize, when we talk about things that work, is talking about layers of protection,” said Dr. Spinazzi. “We are hoping for as many of these layers as possible.” 

In December, OUSD published a safety plan that includes all of the precautions Spinazzi mentioned, but many families and teachers remain skeptical that the district will be able to put them in place. 

“I understand why the community is wondering, ‘Can Oakland Unified meet these suggestions and safety precautions?’ I live in Oakland and I know where the concern is coming from,” Dr. Spinazzi said. But she appreciates that district leaders have consulted healthcare professionals at UCSF on what will make schools safer. OUSD has also been holding family information sessions with UCSF doctors and pediatricians. 

Adrian Grays, who has three kids in public schools in Oakland, is one of the skeptics. Before school buildings shut down, she said, school bathrooms couldn’t always keep toilet paper stocked or have running water at every sink. How can she feel confident about schools managing all these new needs? 

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable sending my kids back to school at all,” Grays said. “I know there’s some parents that have to worry about childcare…I would just want their kids to be safe.”

Delgado, the teacher at Coliseum College Prep Academy, is worried about ventilation; she said her classroom has a window that doesn’t open. According to the district’s readiness dashboard, most of the safety measures for her school are in place, except for air purifiers, which are expected to be installed by March 16. 

Embry, the Castlemont English teacher, pointed out that the high school’s building is decades old, and many of the windows have been nailed shut. 

“I want to see adequate supplies of paper towels. I want to see that they’re going to install these filters and fix the windows,” Embry said. 

Across the district, campus readiness is a work in progress. To date, about 85% of OUSD classrooms have been set up for physical distancing, and 30% have air purifiers. Thirty percent of schools have isolation spaces set up for symptomatic students, about 69% have upgraded air filters, and roughly half have personal protective equipment on site. 

Many families are facing a complex constellation of sometimes conflicting needs that demonstrate a tricky reality of the reopening debate: no single solution will work for everyone. One parent at Claremont Middle School, Lilian Ansari, said sending her children back to the classroom is out of the question until they’re vaccinated. Her 12-year-old daughter has tuberous sclerosis complex, a rare disease that produces non-cancerous tumors. She takes medications to shrink tumors in her organs and has a suppressed immune system. The family has been very strict about maintaining their bubble.

Ansari’s son, who has autism, attends a private school in Oakland. She said distance learning has been better for him because it alleviates some of his social anxieties. But the isolation has also caused his social skills to regress. 

Ansari’s daughter, whom Ansari said is developmentally closer to 3 years old and attends special day classes at Claremont for students with disabilities, has trouble using a computer and doing lessons without assistance. 

“How do you put a 3-year-old in front of a screen all day and expect them to learn? ” Ansari said. 

The Regional Center of the East Bay, an organization that supports people with developmental disabilities, assigned the family a support person last fall to help Ansari’s daughter with school. Ansari accepted the help despite having concerns about inviting another person into her home, because she couldn’t balance helping her daughter with her own full-time job.  

Teacher vaccines and union negotiations are ongoing

Educators in Alameda County have been eligible for vaccines for almost a month, but the district hasn’t released information yet about how many teachers have been vaccinated. Alameda County’s Office of Education estimates there are about 41,000 people in the K-12 workforce in Alameda County. March 4 and 5 were designated as teacher vaccination days at the Oakland Coliseum mass-vaccination site, and officials expect to vaccinate about 14,000 people there over the two days, said ACOE spokesperson Michelle Smith McDonald.

Because new COVID-19 cases in Alameda County have fallen below 25 per 100,000, elementary schools can reopen for in-person learning under California’s guidelines. 

The Oakland teachers’ union and the school district are still negotiating an agreement to have students attend in-person classes taught by teachers who have been vaccinated. 

The teachers’ union’s latest proposal would allow small cohorts of students to come back once COVID case rates fall low enough to place Alameda County in the red tier, which could happen as soon as next week. The cohorts would be limited to 14 people, including students and adults, and would prioritize students in pre-K to second grade, and specific groups like newcomers, unhoused students, and foster youth. 

Chaz Garcia, a member of OEA’s bargaining team, said that once the district and union come to an agreement on small cohorts, they will continue bargaining on a more expansive return to school. 

The state legislature also passed a bill this week that could speed up the reopening timeline by giving money to school districts that reopen by April 1. If Oakland and Alameda County are in the red tier by that date, the district would need to provide in-person instruction to all elementary school grades and at least one middle or high school grade to qualify for funding.

Some private schools have already reopened. Are they a good model for public schools?

Proponents of school reopening have pointed to private schools in Oakland as evidence that it can be done safely. But Angela Taylor, the head of Oakland’s Park Day School, cautioned against holding private schools up as an example.

“I’m able to open simply because we have the luxury of being small and having four acres of land,” Taylor said. “I don’t blame the [public school] teachers for not saying yes, yet.”

Taylor said Park Day’s reopening plan requires that at least half of its classes take place outdoors, where they’ve set up 23 classrooms under tents. The school repurposed existing outdoor tables and purchased new ones to help keep students six feet apart. Every indoor classroom has an air purifier and teachers keep the windows open. 

About 90% of the school’s 275 students in kindergarten through eighth grade have returned for in-person instruction. The other 10%, who have pre-existing health concerns, learn from home.

At Oakland’s private Aurora School, students learn on campus four days a week and are remote for one day. Second through fifth graders are on a hybrid schedule, learning math at home and then coming to school for other lessons. Aurora School opened its doors in November and has never had to close because of a positive case. School leaders did decide to proactively close from Thanksgiving to early February, because of the extreme winter COVID-19 surge in Alameda County. Of the school’s approximately 100 students, about a quarter have chosen to remain at home, said Abbie Koss, the head of the school. 

Aurora School also staggered class times to separate student cohorts, and has held classes like music, Spanish, and physical education outdoors.

“On top of all the PPE, we had to order all of this new technology to make this work,” Koss said. “Webcams, computers for kids, earphones for kids, mics for kids and teachers, microphones and speakers for the room. We spent money that we did not have in our budgets to spend.” 

Taylor, the head of Park Day, said the mix of in-person and virtual instruction is hard on teachers. While they work with students in the classroom, others are watching them on video at home. “If you were to ask our teachers, ‘What’s the hardest part of all of this,’ many of them would say that,” she said. 

Park Day also provides weekly testing for students and teachers, and also hasn’t had to close because of a positive COVID case. And just like Aurora, Park Day chose to stay closed for an extended period of time after the school’s winter break. Students eat outside, even when it’s raining, Taylor said, because the risk is highest when people take their masks off. 

For what public schools might be able to take from her experience, Taylor said, “Prioritize your teachers. It’s not as easy as what one little school can do.”

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.