row of lockers at west oakland middle school
A row of lockers in a hallway of West Oakland Middle School. Credit: Pete Rosos

Over the past year, Oakland youth have lived through a pandemic, organized protests as part of a national uprising over racism and policing, and dealt with the ups and downs of distance learning. Some lost family members or friends, while others fell behind on their classwork, took on extra jobs to help support their families, or experienced mental health crises. 

On Aug. 9, Oakland Unified School District students will return to school in person for the first day of the 2021-2022 year, and many of them will be going back on campus for the first time in 17 months. But lots of high schoolers don’t want to go back to the same kinds of schools they attended before the pandemic. 

Students say that OUSD leaders have an opportunity—bolstered by millions in extra federal and state funding—to create a more supportive and empathetic environment, with a focus on mental and emotional wellness. Without that support, students’ academic achievement will be negatively impacted.

One plan that has been gaining traction is the idea of a “restorative restart,” in the fall. Students, teachers, and staff would take the first few weeks of school to purposefully rebuild the relationships that suffered over the past year, instead of immediately diving into academic curriculum.

“It’s a way to ease back into school, rather than jumping right into it, because with quarantine, we are going from one world to another when we go back next fall,” said Mia Tran, a freshman at Oakland High School. “A restorative restart is a way to do that where students aren’t overwhelmed by going into something that they’re not used to anymore.”

Tran, 15, said that it’s been difficult to make friends while learning remotely this year, and that school leaders should emphasize ways to form those bonds, like creating peer support groups among students. These peer connections could be made between students in the same grade, or with students in higher grades mentoring students in younger grades, Tran said. 

Diana Matias-Carillo, a freshman at Fremont High School, said that taking time at the beginning of the school year to reconnect with each other is a way to acknowledge the trauma that everyone has been through over the past year. Matias-Carillo, 15, has dealt with the deaths of her grandmother and an uncle in the past year. 

“We don’t want students to feel like their feelings aren’t valid, after going into total isolation with only their families for a little more than a year,” said Matias-Carillo. “Students’ families have been going through losing a close relative, or financial issues, or societal issues, like politics.”

Matias-Carillo and Tran are both involved with Californians for Justice, a statewide youth advocacy organization with an Oakland contingent. Californians for Justice, along with Faith in Action East Bay and Public Advocates, worked with OUSD board members to pass a resolution prioritizing social-emotional well-being, mental health, and academic credit recovery last month. Jessica Ramos, one of the student board members who sponsored the resolution, has been advocating for more mental health support for students, as she’s seen the toll that this year has taken on her peers. 

The resolution directs at least $9 million in OUSD’s budget be used to hire community school managers at every school, have teachers conduct home visits or check-ins for every student in the fall, hire more staff to support mental and emotional support, create student and staff retreats in the summer before going back to school, and provide interventions like Saturday school, summer school, and other programs to reach students who are not on track to graduate. 

Last week, OUSD’s chief academic officer Sondra Aguilera presented an extended learning plan that will use about $27 million of the state funding that the district will receive from Assembly Bill 86—one of several sources of COVID-relief funding OUSD can use to improve school for students. 

The administration’s $27 million plan would direct $8.6 million to improving literacy by providing professional development to teachers and staff, hiring reading tutors for transitional kindergarten to second grade, and training paraeducators; $5.3 million on after-school tutoring, Saturday school, and summer school; $5 million on mental health and restorative justice; $3 million on training teachers and staff to conduct home visits with families; $3 million on case management and attendance incentives to address attendance expectations; $2 million on a credit recovery plan; and about $93,000 on educational technology platforms. The board is expected to vote on the plan next week.

Aguilera also presented the plan to OUSD’s All-City Council, the district’s elected student union, but it’s not clear if it includes all the things students are asking for. 

“This is one of the things that students don’t know about. We should be in conversation about it,” said student board director Samantha Pal, about the learning plan. She suggested having a town hall for all students who are interested, where they can ask questions. 

Natalie Gallegos, a sophomore at Oakland High School, has suggestions for how schools and the district could better support student well-being. This year, many of her teachers incorporated mindfulness exercises into their classes, taking a few minutes at the start of class to meditate or do breathing exercises. 

“When we go in person, we should always take time out of our class to do mindfulness, because I feel like it’s a way to get everybody grounded,” Gallegos said. 

Students and teachers also had a wellness day this year, which was a day off from school for teachers and students on May 10. The day was included in the memorandum of understanding between the teachers’ union and the district that was negotiated last August, intended to give educators and students extra time to tend to their own social and emotional needs. Gallegos, 16, thinks more wellness days could have a positive impact on students’ mental health. 

For the past two years, Gallegos has served as the LCAP student director for OUSD’s student union. In that role, she attends parent-student advisory council meetings and helps monitor the district budget. As a member of the council, she also helps develop the Local Control and Accountability Plan which determines funding for student groups like foster and homeless youth, English language learners, low-income students, and others. Her priorities include advocating for more restorative justice programs, and, especially for this school year, credit recovery options, which are programs that allow students to make up for their failed classes. 

For Gallegos, cultivating joyfulness on school campuses is another way to ease the transition back to in-person learning. Things like pep rallies or an outdoor movie night on a field could liven up students’ spirits, she said.

“More ways to engage students so the school can feel more at home for them, and gives them another way to engage with the community within their school site,” Gallegos said. 

Beyond mental health, students also want to see improvements in academic policies. This year, many teachers have had more relaxed deadlines for assignments, and some want to see that practice extended into future school years.

“When students don’t have as much pressure to finish assignments right at the end of class or have it done by the next day, work gets done better and with less stress,” Tran said. 

Matias-Carillo, the Fremont student, said that the Friday advisory periods incorporated into her school’s distance learning schedule, which allow students to check in with their teachers and get assistance with their assignments, have been helpful for her, especially in math, and she hopes that can continue into next school year. 

Students want their voices to be heard about these proposals. And while young people’s input has long been prioritized at OUSD, students say they hope the adults aren’t just listening, but that they’re actually incorporating students’ perspectives into the plans.

“Adults might listen to us, but we don’t always know if they are going to take in what we said,” said Gallegos. “Because after all, the district is for us. We’re the ones going to school. We’re the ones that have to be in these classes and be in the buildings.”

Correction: the first day of school for Oakland Unified is August 9, not 10.

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.