kids running on a court
Students at Glenview Elementary School enjoy their new campus on March 30, the first day of in person instruction. Credit: Oakland Unified School District

Thousands of Oakland students returned to their classrooms Tuesday, meeting their teachers and classmates in person for the first time after more than a year of school closures. 

With two and a half hours of class per day, a few times a week for pre-K through second graders, it’s not as much instruction as many parents were hoping for, but it offers OUSD’s youngest students a chance to escape the isolation of distance learning and be around other kids. And it’s a first step toward a five-days-per-week reopening the district is aiming for in the fall. 

Getting to this point hasn’t been easy. The school district and teachers’ union came to an agreement earlier this month to reopen elementary schools on March 30. But last week, the district announced that more than half of OUSD elementary schools had to readjust their reopening plans because not enough teachers opted to return early. 

And it’s not school as normal: everyone must wear masks, and students’ desks are spaced apart, along with other precautions.

Seven months ago, The Oaklandside shadowed several students, families, and teachers on their first day of online school in August. On Tuesday, we followed several more on their first day of hybrid instruction. Here’s how it went.

Teachers arrive at school, most students still learn from home

7:45 a.m.: Colleen Zak, a first grade teacher at Allendale Elementary, arrives at school. In her first hour, she sends reminder emails to parents of the 10 students who will come in later in the day for in-person learning. Before getting to school, she stopped to get balloons to place in her classroom doorway. 

Before getting to school at 7:45, first grade teacher Colleen Zak picked up balloons to place at the entrance of her classroom. Credit: Courtesy Colleen Zak

8:45 a.m.: Alicia Arenas, the principal of Garfield Elementary School, arrives on campus to begin welcoming teachers and staff, after dropping off her own fourth grader for school. About 75 students are expected to attend school at Garfield today.

9 a.m.: Peyton Johnson (whose first virtual day The Oaklandside also chronicled in August) joins her kindergarten class for a morning Zoom meeting. Although in-person learning is starting, all students will continue with virtual instruction each morning until about 11:30. The laptop that got dog vomit on it during Peyton’s first day August is still out for repair. “Peyton has become so much more accustomed to learning at home. It’s basically all she knows this year,” said her mom, Sandy Johnson. 

9 a.m.: Jessica Jung, a third grade teacher at Bridges Academy at Melrose, begins her day virtually with her students, who are at home. Jung won’t be returning to her classroom until required, on April 14. Beginning April 19, she’ll also teach about half of her 26 students who opt to come in for in-person learning. To commemorate Women’s History Month, the class has been watching short videos about prominent women, and today students learned about Bamby Salcedo, a trans Latina activist in Los Angeles. A few students asked about when they’d be returning to school, and Jung told them April 19, but only if their parents had opted to let them return. “One of the kids said, ‘I hope my parents signed me up to go back to school!’” Jung said.

10 a.m.: Alicia Arenas, the principal, makes her rounds throughout campus to make sure safety notices are posted, hand sanitizer dispensers are filled and working, and that a check-in station for families is set up at the school’s entrance. “I’m feeling a little anxious. Typically, with the start of the school year, I know what to expect,” Arenas said. “I’m trying to anticipate all the questions that may come up.”

Alicia Arenas
Alicia Arenas, the principal of Garfield Elementary School. Credit: Courtesy Alicia Arenas

11a.m.: Colleen Zak, the first grade teacher, is teaching her students over Zoom while she’s in her empty classroom. “I was teaching from my closet at my house, so I felt like I had more space and it was a little brighter here.”

The school day gets started

steven hernandez
Steven Hernandez, 5, arrived for his first day of in-person kindergarten at Madison Park Primary in Oakland. He wants to be in the military when he grows up. Credit: Ashley McBride

12 p.m.: Steven Hernandez, 5, arrives for his first day of in-person kindergarten at Madison Park Academy Primary in Sobrante Park and is immediately surrounded by reporters interested in hearing his take on the first day. Steven was the first student to arrive at his school on Tuesday, and came with his mom and grandma. Wearing a spaceship t-shirt, a NASA hat, and shouldering an Avengers backpack with the lunchbox attached, Steven said he was looking forward to learning writing, doing his homework, and meeting up with his friends at school. “I’m happy because I love school,” he said. 

12:15 p.m.: As more students arrive at Madison Park Academy, they stand inside hula hoops on the ground in the parking lot and wait to check in. Families must complete a health screening, either at home before coming to campus or before they go inside, that asks questions about symptoms or possible exposure to coronavirus. Students also have to sign health agreements and commit to following the safety rules, like wearing a face covering, maintaining distance from other students, washing their hands frequently and staying home if they’re feeling sick. Unlike in previous years when parents could walk their students into the building and to their classroom to meet their teachers, families had to stay outside the school’s gates to watch their students be led inside. 

“Just to see little people on campus, and not outside in the parking lot, is exciting for me,” said Precious James, who teaches fourth and fifth graders. “COVID-19 took something from us that we’re getting back today.” 

students signing health agreements
Madison Park Primary student Paris Jameson, 6, signs her name on a health agreement that all students must complete. Credit: Ashley McBride

12:30 p.m.: Peyton Johnson, the kindergartener, arrives at Chabot Elementary with her parents. She doesn’t want to hold her parents’ hands as they walk up to the school, which hurt their feelings a bit. “It’s bittersweet. It’s been a long year and I’m just excited she’s able to experience this in person and take in what kindergarten should have been pre-pandemic,” her mom, Sandy Johnson, said. 

peyton johnson
Peyton Johnson, a kindergartener at Chabot Elementary, lines up with her classmates before walking onto campus. Credit: Courtesy Sandy Johnson

1 p.m.: Colleen Zak’s last student arrives at school. Two of the ten students who were supposed to be in her class today did not come, and one student who was assigned to the Thursday/Friday cohort mistakenly showed up. Zak swapped that student with one of the absent students and he was able to stay. 

12:45 p.m.: The last student arrived at Garfield Elementary School for in person instruction. Each student gets a sticker after they check in which serves as their pass to go inside. About 40 students came, and were split across six classes. One girl who seemed a bit apprehensive about being at school lit up when she saw her teacher, and even ran to greet her. Another mom drove from Livermore, where the family recently moved, because she still wanted to keep her son at Garfield. “The kids were really excited,” said Principal Arenas. “A few said they didn’t want to leave at the end of the day, which was really sweet.”

Science experiments and snack time

1 p.m.: With her third graders watching over Zoom, Jessica Jung demonstrates their class science experiment, which was to test whether a foil boat could carry 50 pennies without sinking. Some students did the experiment themselves at their homes, while others watched Jung do it on camera. “All of my kids have come a long way, but especially the newcomer students,” she said, referring to her six immigrant students who have been in the U.S. for less than three years. Earlier in the school year, tech problems would sometimes leave kids in tears because they couldn’t figure out how to navigate Zoom or other learning platforms. “Now I say, ‘Just share your screen.”

science project
Jessica Jung’s third graders designed a science fair experiment to test what kind of foil boat could hold 50 pennies. Credit: Courtesy Jessica Jung

1:30 p.m.: Colleen Zak takes her students out for snack time and recess. Zak spaced her nine students as far apart as she could while they were eating, and a couple students jumped rope while physically distanced from each other. Throughout the day, just two students had to be reminded to keep their masks on over their nose and mouth, Zak said. 

2 p.m.: While her in-class students completed a literacy lesson, Zak’s students who stayed in distance learning were assigned work on Zearn and Epic, two online learning platforms. She also instructed her distance learners to spend 20 minutes outside and work on their sight words, which are words that young readers learn to recognize without sounding out the letters. 

Colleen Zak, first grade teacher, returns to in-person instruction at Allendale Elementary School in East Oakland
Colleen Zak, first grade teacher, returns to in-person instruction at Allendale Elementary School in East Oakland Credit: Amir Aziz

2:55 p.m.: Zak’s students clean up their classroom for the day and line up to walk outside to meet their families for pick-up. At Garfield, students are doing the same. 

3 p.m.: Peyton Johnson, the Chabot kindergartener, gets picked up from school. During the afternoon, her teacher read two books with the class and they looked at a caterpillar. While her excitement today was palpable, Peyton won’t be back at school until the week of April 12, because her group attends school on Mondays and Tuesdays, and next week is spring break. Her mom asked if she prefers in-person or virtual school and she replied “definitely in person.”

3:15 p.m.: Principal Arenas has a debrief with her staff about how the day went and what they could improve for the next group of students who will come on Thursday, like brainstorming outdoor games students can play during recess, while remaining physically distanced from each other. “I was so excited to see kids in the building and hear them reading and hear learning happening,” Arenas said. “But now I am exhausted.”

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.