Elementary school students in Oakland could begin returning to the classroom this month if an agreement is approved by the teachers' union and school board. Credit: Pete Rosos

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Oakland Unified School District officials and the Oakland Education Association have come to a tentative agreement on school reopening this spring that would bring the youngest students back in a hybrid learning model.

The agreement, which still has to be voted on by OEA members and the school board, would allow pre-K through second graders to return to school for in-person instruction beginning Tuesday, March 30. On April 19, third through fifth graders, and at least one grade in middle or high school, will come back. Groups of students in all grades who need extra support, like English learners, unhoused students or students in foster care, will also be allowed back with the first group.

“We reached a tentative agreement that is just, equitable, and most importantly, safe. We believe that phasing in student return on April 19 allows all educators to complete their vaccinations, if they so choose, and for California’s targeted vaccination program to reach our most vulnerable communities,” Keith Brown, president of the teachers’ union, said in a statement. “This agreement also provides time to engage in the work of setting up the next agreement for a comprehensive hybrid model, which would meet the unique needs of our students, families, and members”

Teachers who opt in to return will go back to classrooms on March 25, and all teachers and OEA members, including nurses, counselors, substitutes, and social workers, will be back by April 14. Under the hybrid learning model, students who return to in-person learning will likely be in class two days a week and would remain in distance learning the other three days, said district spokesman John Sasaki. More than half of OUSD elementary school families opted in to receive in-person instruction, according to data released last week

All students, including those who choose to return to the classroom, will be able to switch to distance learning if they want. But once families choose distance learning, they will not have the option to receive in-person instruction for the rest of the school year.

“It’s going to be a while before we get back to normal, but it’s going to be a lot more normal being back in class for a lot of our students, staff, and families, than it has been for the past year,” Sasaki said. 

Sasaki added that a return to a normal five days per week classroom schedule is unlikely until the fall. 

The union and the school district have been bargaining since January on returning to school. Their main disagreements have been over timing. Initial proposals by the district would have begun in-person instruction when Alameda County reached fewer than 25 new cases per 100,000, in the state’s purple tier. The teachers’ union did not feel this provided enough safety for staff and students and pushed for reopening to begin when Oakland had lower rates of spread in the red or orange tier. (Read more about the state’s tier system here.)

Teachers who volunteer to come back beginning March 25 will receive a $200 weekly stipend on top of their normal pay. When all staff return April 14, all OEA members will receive a one-time $2,000 bonus. 

By welcoming students back on March 30, OUSD will be eligible for extra funding from Senate Bill 86, which provides financial incentives for districts that reopen elementary schools by April 1, and secondary schools after that. Districts will receive varying amounts of money, based partly on the numbers of low-income, English learner, foster, and homeless youth served in the district. 

Safety precautions that the district has taken to support reopening include equipping classrooms with air purifiers and upgraded air filters, stocking up on personal protective equipment at school campuses, keeping hand sanitizer and soap dispensers filled in bathrooms, and deep cleaning of classrooms.

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.