empty classroom with spaced desks
An empty classroom in West Oakland Middle School during the pandemic in August 2020. Credit: Pete Rosos

A majority of elementary school families in the Oakland Unified School District would like to have the choice to send their students back to in-person learning if it becomes available this year, according to a new survey. 

The district ran the survey to plan for hybrid learning, in which some students could remain at home and access classes through distance learning while others go back to classrooms a few days a week. Campuses have been mostly closed to students since last March because of the pandemic.

Ninety-two percent of OUSD’s elementary school families completed the survey, an unusually high rate of participation which the district attributes to direct phone outreach to help families fill out the online survey. More than 300 school and administrative staff made more than 7,000 phone calls to get as high of a response rate as possible.

“We’re super appreciative of our families taking part and letting us know what they want,” said John Sasaki, spokesman for the district. “The more information we get from our families, the better we’re going to be able to serve them when we take our next step.” 

Of the 17,837 responses, 10,412 opted in for in-person instruction, or about 58%, according to the data released Thursday. About 8%—1,612—of elementary families did not complete the survey. 

Families who chose in-person learning will be allowed to shift back to remote learning if they want, but those who responded to the survey saying they would be keeping their children in distance learning for the rest of the year will not be able to receive in-person instruction this year. Families who did not respond to the survey will also continue with distance learning for the rest of the year. 

“This is a challenging enough circumstance as it is, and we can’t have a whole bunch of kids going back and forth, especially coming into the schools,” Sasaki said.

While a large majority of white families are eager to return to in-person learning, results among families of color were more evenly split, which is consistent with national polling on school reopening. About 76% of white families opted to return to classrooms, while 52% of Black families opted for in-person instruction, along with 44% of Asian families, and 48% of Latino families. 

ousd reopening survey results
The percentage of families opting for in-person instruction varied across racial and ethnic lines. Credit: OUSD Data Dashboard

“So we have a fair amount of interest among subgroups, some a little more than others,” said superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell during Wednesday night’s school board meeting. “And there’s also the equally significant and important group of students and families who want to remain distant.”

Results varied across the city, with higher percentages of families at schools in North Oakland and the Oakland Hills answering that they’d like to return to school than families in other parts of the city. Chabot, Crocker Highlands, Hillcrest, and Thornhill elementary schools had more than 80% of families prefer in-person learning. Schools like La Escuelita, Reach Academy, Lincoln, and Global Family School had more than half of families choose to remain in distance learning.

The questionnaire also asked families what kind of schedule they would prefer for their student: a half-day or a full school day. Of those who answered that they are interested in in-person instruction, about 63% had no preference for a specific schedule, about 13% said only a full day would work for their student, and about 11% chose a half day. Fourteen percent of the in-person preferences didn’t answer the schedule question. 

The schedule preference also varied at different schools: While a vast majority of families overall answered that either a full school day or a half day would work for them, schools in East Oakland had higher percentages of families who preferred only a full day of school, according to the report.

The data will help schools plan how to accommodate students for in-person learning this spring, but some students will be a priority. Special education students with individualized education programs, or IEPs, will be offered a space as soon as it is available.  All other students from families who answered “yes” to returning to classrooms will be offered a seat if space becomes available at their school. But students who return for in-person learning may not have the same teacher they’ve had all year, since teachers are being given the option to return, according to the latest bargaining proposals. Other details of what classroom instruction will look like still have to be hashed out as the district and the teachers’ union, the Oakland Education Association, are still in negotiations. 

A preliminary plan that OUSD released in December would have students come to school in cohorts of up to 10 students for two to four days a week, depending on how many in a particular class agree to return to school. Because of social distancing requirements, in-person class sizes have to be smaller and coming to school on alternate days will give staff time to clean classrooms in between cohorts. 

Bargaining teams for the district and the teachers’ union have been meeting all week, Johnson-Trammell said. Both sides appear to agree on welcoming back small groups of students in the earliest grades first, and that vaccinated teachers may opt in to returning to the classroom. The two sides have not agreed on an exact date to begin in-person instruction. 

OUSD could receive extra funding from Senate Bill 86 if the district opens elementary schools and at least one middle or high school grade for in-person learning by April 1. Most public schools in California remain in distance learning, and the bill does not force districts to open but sets aside more than $2 billion to incentivize districts to bring students back into the classroom. For districts that do not open by April 1, the amount of money they could receive will decrease by 1% each day until May 15. 

Summer school plans have also started to take shape, and OUSD expects to serve 6,000 students both in-person and virtually this summer. Next week, the district will announce more about its plans for how school could look in the fall, including the possibility of offering a distance learning option for some families.

“We absolutely have to provide in-person opportunities for our students—elementary, middle, and high school—next year. And we know that there are families [for whom] some of the virtual components are working,” Johnson-Trammell said. “Trying to evolve the system so that we’re able to offer support for families that want that—we still need to plan for that.”

A survey for families with students in higher grades will go out in the next few weeks, according to the district. Public schools in Oakland have been closed since March 13, 2020.

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.