jamila brooks and her children
After more than a year of Oakland schools being closed, teachers like Jamila Brooks, also a mom of two elementary schoolers, will head back to her classroom this week to teach students in person. Credit: Pete Rosos

For Montclair Elementary School teacher Jamila Brooks, one of the biggest challenges of the pandemic was keeping students engaged with online learning, and making sure they turned in their assignments. Now she’s one of many Oakland educators returning to school this week, with a host of new solutions and practices that may prove just as useful in a physical classroom.

Brooks began the school year with the same expectations as always: She’d present the lesson, her fifth grade students would complete an assignment to demonstrate that they understood the material, and then they’d move on. But after a few months, Brooks was struggling to get more than half of her fifth graders to complete assignments. So she decided to try a new approach: fewer quick assignments and more in-depth projects, which take longer to complete but give students more freedom and encompass a wider range of skills.

“For some kids, this was the only time they were engaged in their work, doing something that they liked, and using a skill that they’d been developing,” Brooks said. “It feels like the work they’re doing has a purpose as opposed to checking off a box that I taught that standard.” 

In December, Brooks had her students devise their own small businesses, as a way to teach them about money and decimals. She had local entrepreneurs drop into her class to talk about their ventures, and even got parents who run small businesses involved. The students wrapped up the project earlier this month and presented their business ideas. Brooks said she plans to incorporate similar projects during the remainder of this school year, and beyond.

About a third of Oakland Unified School District teachers began returning to their classrooms last week to prepare for Tuesday, March 30, the first day of in-person school in more than a year for many pre-K through second graders in the district. Prioritized student groups in other grades, including English language learners, foster students, and homeless students, will also begin returning to campuses this week. But reopening plans at some schools were delayed because not enough teachers opted to return this week. 

Although the school district and teachers’ union agreed that in-person instruction would begin on March 30, teachers are not required to return until April 14, but can volunteer to start earlier. At seven schools, no teachers opted to start early, so those schools will not reopen for any students until April 19, which is when third through sixth graders will begin learning in person across the district. At two dozen other schools, too few teachers volunteered, and those schools will have partial reopenings this week. Some students attending school in person this week may be assigned a new teacher or substitute until their previous teacher returns. 

Regardless of the timelines, educators we spoke to say the pandemic has taught them to be more flexible with students juggling multiple responsibilities, like caring for younger siblings or working to help support their families. 

Reyna Guerra, a special education teacher at Fremont High School, said consistent student attendance has been a struggle. More than 600 students at Fremont qualify as “chronically absent” and have missed more than 10% of their classes, including 400 who have missed more than 20% of their classes. During distance learning, students still have an opportunity to complete their coursework through Google Classroom, even if they missed their class Zoom session. Guerra said she’d like to keep her Google Classroom portal up even after distance learning is finished, to give students more than one way to complete their work. 

“Distance learning has provided multiple ways to do things and we should maintain that,” she said. “I’m going to be extra supportive and provide opportunities in a way that I wasn’t before.”

Guerra also thinks the district should reevaluate how teachers grade, and consider interventions that can help students avoid a failing grade. In her own class, Guerra said she has students who are dealing with housing and food insecurity, and lack technology. Failing those students for not completing all of their assignments during the pandemic, she said, is a harsh response.

“We have to start being more expansive in terms of how we look at education and how we look at the students we are serving,” she said. “I think this old model of grading is archaic.” 

Guerra said she doesn’t penalize students for taking longer on assignments if they have legitimate challenges, instead choosing to work with them on an alternate timeline, even if it means she has to postpone other lessons. Learning doesn’t have to come from textbooks, she added, and students are also building up life skills as they navigate the pandemic. 

Parent communication is another area where some teachers have been switching up their old methods. Without in-person parent conferences, or casual run-ins with parents during school drop-offs and pick-ups, it’s been more critical for teachers to give families regular updates on how their students are faring. For many teachers, online communication with parents has been an upgrade, one they plan to continue after they return to the classroom. 

Liana Nelson teaches students with autism in kindergarten, first, and second grades at Bridges Academy at Melrose. While she’d hoped to return to her classroom early, she won’t be with students in person this week because her school’s reopening is limited: families can come in for scheduled teacher conferences and students can attend school-safety tours, but there won’t be in-person instruction. 

Nelson has always used videos, songs, and music to create interactive lessons, but she said apps like Seesaw and Google Classroom have opened up new methods of communicating with families. 

“I’d never used any apps before and had never used that method of communication with parents,” Nelson said. “I do want to keep that up, because it’s really easy and user friendly.”

For Nikita Gibbs, a teacher at Markham Elementary, relying heavily on technology was not something she did often with her fourth graders prior to the pandemic. But it’s not because she wasn’t interested. 

“I think that there was really a lack of resources,” Gibbs said. 

Those resources are more available now, due in part to the district’s Oakland Undivided campaign, which aims to provide every Oakland student with a Chromebook and internet access until they graduate from high school. While the tech learning curve has been steep for teachers and families alike, a plethora of virtual apps like Seesaw, Google Classroom, and Jamboard are now household names. 

Gibbs said she’ll continue to use Google Jamboard for interactive brainstorming sessions, and Seesaw for online homework assignments because it eliminates paper. The days of sticky, Kool-Aid stained homework sheets that students would hand in prior to schools being closed, she said, are likely a thing of the past. 

While Gibbs is eager to see her students face-to-face again, she said it’ll be hard not being physically affectionate with her students.

“Letting them know, there’s boundaries. We can’t hug anymore, but we can do an air hug,” Gibbs said. “Turning that off is going to be something I’m not looking forward to at all.”

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.