Students work on an arts and crafts project on the first day of in-person learning at Glenview Elementary School. Credit: Oakland Unified School District

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In a message to families last week, Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell wrote that the district is planning for schools to fully open for the 2021-2022 school year, and also planning a hybrid learning model and considering a distance learning option for families who still don’t feel comfortable returning to campuses. But Johnson-Trammell stopped short of promising full in-person reopening this fall.

“That is as close as I—or anybody—can come to providing assurances,” Johnson-Trammell wrote. “I wish I could say our schools will open fully in the fall, but that is not rooted in the reality of our situation.”

Frustrated by the district’s lack of a firm reopening target, some families have formed a coalition called Oakland Parents for Open Schools. The group has hired attorneys—indicating they might file a lawsuit—and is urging OUSD to expand in-person learning this spring, give assurances that students will be back on campuses full-time in the fall, or otherwise explain why in-person options are so limited. 

The group’s lawyers wrote in a letter to OUSD last week that California’s constitution and education code require Oakland Unified to provide as much in-person learning as possible. The 12-page letter also cites local and state health guidance and OUSD’s site dashboard showing the status of safety precautions at every campus as evidence that it’s safe to return to campuses, and states that OUSD has a legal obligation to offer more in-person instruction than it currently does. 

Mishan Wroe, one of the parents, said that the families who have been dissatisfied with the pace of school reopening in Oakland got the idea to retain attorneys from San Francisco, where the city attorney sued San Francisco Unified School District to implement a plan to bring students back to campuses. The Oakland parents’ letter demands that OUSD maximize in-person instruction this spring and implement a new plan by April 19, when students in third to sixth grades will be welcomed back to campuses. 

In a statement, OUSD officials acknowledged that they received the letter and said they plan to send the group a written response.

“We are also looking forward to Monday, April 19 when we will be bringing more students and all staff back to our campuses. At that point, we’ll be offering in-person instruction to all PK-6 grade students as well as priority students in grades 7-12 and in the District’s Young Adult Program,” the statement said.

Nearby districts, like Berkeley Unified, offer five days a week of in-person learning for elementary school students, leaving some to question whether OUSD could do more than just a few hours a week at school for the district’s youngest learners. San Francisco Unified passed a resolution this week committing to full in-person instruction for all students in the fall, leading parents to raise questions about what school will look like in Oakland then. Governor Gavin Newsom this week said with California on track to reopen on June 15, if hospitalization rates remain low and vaccination rates continue to improve, he expects all schools to provide full-day, in-person instruction in August, but Oakland Unified has stopped just short of guaranteeing a full return to school in the fall. 

Attorney Erik Olson, one of the lawyers representing the group, did not explain what their next steps will be if the district does not respond to the letter or move to expand in-person learning. But litigation is an option, he said. 

A classroom at Glenview Elementary School displays the afternoon schedule on the first day of in-person learning. Credit: Oakland Unified School District

OUSD’s current in-person learning schedule is fairly limited. Elementary school students have been invited to come back in cohorts of up to 12 students per classroom, from 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays or Thursdays and Fridays. Starting school in the middle of the day makes it more difficult for many working parents to arrange transportation for their kids, said Autumn McDonald, another parent in the group who has two elementary schoolers.

“Collective bargaining agreements are the result of compromise, so while I am disappointed with the amount of instructional time students are getting, I strongly believe that limited time and limited students on campus is better than no students on campus,” said Shanthi Gonzales, OUSD board president. Gonzales added that ongoing bargaining between the district and the teachers’ union, plus the spread of new COVID-19 variants in California are two factors that have so far prevented the district from guaranteeing a full reopening in the fall. 

The district’s current limited schedule, which was designed by the school district, was deliberately designed to ensure that students who chose to continue distance learning experience as little disruption as possible, and so that teachers would not have to teach their classroom students and distance learners simultaneously. Right now, all students learn on Zoom at home in the mornings, and students who opted for in-person instruction come to campus in the afternoons, while distance learners complete independent work. Although this system is complicated and results in less time on campus for students who opted to return to classrooms, it ensures a more equitable learning environment for all kids, according to the district and teachers union representatives.

“We really worked hard to find a model that would allow students to stay with their teachers and not shuffle what students go with what teachers, and that would not force teachers to do in-person and distance instruction at the same time,” said Sam Davis, the vice president of the OUSD board of education.

Superintendent Johnson-Trammell has also said that since a significant amount of families—around 42%—chose to continue with distance learning this spring, another consideration when creating the schedule was to maintain quality of distance learning for those students. 

“By trying to have a schedule that allows for in person, and still ensures that students are getting that degree of live instruction that they were getting before is one way that we are trying to ensure equity,” she said during a news conference at Madison Park Academy on March 30, the first day of in-person instruction. 

On that first day, Oakland school classrooms were arranged to accommodate 4 to 6 feet of space between students—a standard that has since changed to 3 feet, which some parents believe could eliminate the constraint of placing students in small cohorts and allow students to come to campus four or five times per week. 

Gonzales and Davis said that school staff are still working to implement the 3-foot distancing guidelines across the district. 

Although the Oakland Education Association and OUSD came to an agreement on resuming in-person instruction last month, they are still negotiating over the impacts of school reopening for this spring, summer school, and the fall. Keith Brown, the president of OEA, said their agreements will align with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the California Department of Public Health. He also commended the district for the schedule that “avoided simultaneous instruction, which we agree is not an equitable or effective way to serve students.”

“The time spent indoors with other people matters, and in schools safe conditions can best be accomplished by hybrid models,” Brown said in a statement. “This is why government health officials recommended limiting personal social gatherings with those from other households to less than two hours. Less time is less risk; longer time increases risk. We are hopeful that conditions will be better in the fall.”

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.