Robert Staenberg teaches writing to his ninth graders on Zoom and in person at Oakland Unity High School, as another teacher, Andrea Wood, supports students in class. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Most of Oakland’s public middle and high school students won’t be going back to the classroom this year, with Oakland Unified School District’s in-person reopening limited to elementary schools. But students at Oakland Unity High School, a small, public charter school in East Oakland, have been back in class since mid-March—among the first in the city to resume in-person instruction, five days a week. 

“Everybody knows that distance learning is not serving people very well. For us, it can be a little frustrating because it seems like people are not thinking too much about the high school students,” said William Nee, the school’s principal.

State public health guidance allowed for elementary schools to open sooner than secondary schools, with younger kids appearing less susceptible to COVID-19. The state is also rewarding school districts that open elementary schools with additional funding, but districts are only required to open one upper grade to become eligible. 

At Unity High, school leaders found that the hardest part about reopening wasn’t figuring out how to create socially distanced classrooms or getting students and staff to wear masks—it’s getting students to come back at all, after a year of learning online at home.

The school welcomed its ninth graders back first, so they could build relationships with their teachers and classmates and establish a routine. Upper class students without stable internet connections at home have been coming to campus for tutoring in small-group “learning hubs” since the fall, similar to many other public middle and high schools in Oakland. But unlike other high schools, in the coming weeks, upper class students at Unity High will have the opportunity to return for regular classes as well. 

But coming back to the physical classroom is not mandatory, and only about a quarter of the school’s students have been on campus each day, including about a third of ninth graders. 

“In talking with a lot of students, they’re like, ‘I’m at home. It feels optional to go to school,’” Nee said. “That loss of academic momentum is a lot of work to get through.”

On a typical weekday, masked students are greeted at 8:30 a.m. by Principal Nee or another administrator for a temperature check at the front gate. Students are asked whether they’re experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms, and allowed onto campus with a squirt of hand sanitizer once they’re cleared. 

Ninth grade students at Oakland Unity High School attend math class in person on Friday, March 26, 2021. Credit: Amir Aziz

Students attending in-person have the same schedule as those still learning from home, and all Unity students, even if they’re physically on campus, log into Zoom. This allows teachers to keep everyone on the same page and makes it easier for all students to participate in class discussions. 

Requiring students to attend school for the entire day is critical to establishing consistency and getting students accustomed to school again, Nee said. He and other school leaders considered creating a two or three-days-a-week schedule to ease students back, but ultimately decided against it. A part-time schedule could perpetuate the idea that school is optional, he said, a perception  they’re trying to avoid. 

“We had expected that parents and kids were very eager to come back to school,” Nee said. “But it was actually a lot of work.”

Still, Nee cited several factors that have made reopening easier for Unity than other schools. With about 360 students enrolled, it’s smaller than most other public high schools in Oakland.

And implementing safety measures on the school’s campus, located at an old church, has been relatively easy: While leaders at other schools have had to figure out how to control crowd flow through cramped hallways, Unity High School has no indoor hallways on the campus. Instead, each classroom has doors that lead directly outside, which are propped open all day. To keep class cohorts separate, students stay in the same classroom during the day while teachers rotate in and out for their class periods. 

Despite the effective setup, many students are choosing to stay at home, including those who have siblings attending other schools that are further behind in the reopening process. 

“I have a lot of students who are taking care of younger siblings. Even if our high school is open, if the elementary or middle school is closed, they’ve got to stay home,” said Robert Staenberg, who teaches writing to freshmen. “Even if our school is running our program effectively, that barrier can’t be overcome until schools open more widely and people feel safer about returning to school.”

Dominique Hayes, the school’s dean of students, has been working with families to track down students who’ve been disengaged with distance learning. Before Unity High reopened for in-person learning, she would offer suggestions to students who are watching their younger siblings while trying to balance their own school assignments.

“I’d basically try to tell them to multitask. Turn on your class first, record it from your phone, and then get your sibling situated,” Hayes said. 

Unity High principal William Nee talks to upper class students who are attending small learning hubs in a campus portables. Credit: Amir Aziz

All of the safety precautions the school has put in place since reopening—inviting families to tour the campus setup, the temperature checks and verbal screenings—have put some families at ease, Hayes said. 

While there aren’t as many students attending in person as teachers and school leaders would like, Hayes points to improving COVID-19 case rates, and Alameda County’s recent move into the Orange Tier, as reasons for optimism.  

To help families feel more comfortable, Staenberg, the writing teacher, created a video for parents showcasing the school’s safety precautions, which also emphasizes the benefits of learning in a classroom setting with a teacher.

Staenberg has seen some students, who were standouts before the pandemic, lose motivation and receive failing grades during distance learning. 

“I’ve seen a year of education disappear,” he said. “If you think that education is important to the children’s future as well as the future of our society, you watch the lack of learning happening on Zoom and you despair.”

He reaches out directly to students he knows well to gently encourage them to consider returning to school. And in his conferences with families, Staenberg stresses how important it is for students to be in the classroom. Even if parents are satisfied with how their children are doing in distance learning, they’re not getting the same level of instruction and preparation that they would if they were in school, Staenberg said. Still, he knows that families are balancing other worries.

“I don’t want to push anyone to come back if they’re uncomfortable. I don’t know everyone’s safety concerns,” he said. 

Karla Santana is a mom of four and her second oldest son is a freshman at Unity High. Although her son’s grades didn’t suffer too badly during distance learning, she was concerned about whether he’d be able to socialize with other people his age and meet his classmates, many of whom he didn’t go to middle school with. 

“He needs to have friends, other than by phone or by Zoom. He needs to see them in person,” she said.

But she also had concerns about whether her son would be exposed to COVID-19 at school. Santana’s diabetic mom lives with the family and recently had her foot amputated. In order to feel safe, Santana instructed her son to revert back to their early pandemic habits: constantly washing hands, changing clothes as soon as he got home, and being extra cautious. Her son has been back on campus for about three weeks now, and while it’s not school as it was before the pandemic, he’s been able to make some friends, and Santana said getting back into a regular routine has been good for him.

As staff work to bring more ninth graders back to campus, upper class students will also be invited back this month. Some families question whether they should upend the schedules they’ve been in since the beginning of the school year for just eight weeks of school, but Nee reiterated that time in class is more beneficial to students than learning from home, and it’s practice for the fall.

“Even though we’re nearing the end of the school year—we really only have a little over two months—for me it’s important to move with urgency and to try to open as much as we can before the end of the school year,” said Nee, “so next year we’re not starting from nothing.”

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.