students sitting around a table
Middle school students at Bay Area Technology School attend a cooking class during Camp BayTech, a two-week enrichment camp the school put on to help students get to know each other before the start of the school year. Credit: Ashley McBride

Karla Gandiaga has been thinking about the upcoming school year for months. As Alameda County and the rest of the country were experiencing a winter surge in COVID-19 cases last December, Gandiaga realized at that moment that students probably wouldn’t return to campus for in-person learning again until August 2021. 

As the head of ARISE High School, Gandiaga started planning then for how the Fruitvale charter school would make the transition back to in-person learning smoother for its students— many of whom have experienced trauma, lost family members, experienced food insecurity or other instability during the pandemic.

“There was a time in January when I got a call every single day from a different family saying they were positive (for COVID),” she said. “It’s been absolutely horrific for our community.”

Gandiaga is one of dozens of Oakland school leaders, along with hundreds of teachers and other school staff who are trying to anticipate what students will need after a worldwide pandemic kept them out of school buildings since March 2020. While some families and educators have drawn attention to academic regression and learning loss, schools will also have to address the emotional and mental impacts that the pandemic has had on students. Beyond that, the pandemic isn’t over yet, and this school year will be an opportunity to try new approaches and incorporate some of the changes that schools made to accommodate distance learning. 

Making new hires and new schedules

Gandiaga, who has been the head of school since 2019, knew that her students would need additional support, so she hired more academic and mental health counselors for the upcoming school year. When Gandiaga was hired as principal, the school had just two counselors, one for academics and one for mental health. Now, the school will have two full-time mental health counselors, four full-time academic counselors, and one part-time academic counselor.

Last year, ARISE also began hiring alumni who were in college to help teachers conduct classes over Zoom. For the 2021-2022 school year, they’ve hired 22 alumni to become mentors to current students and provide social, emotional, and academic support in the classroom.

One-time COVID funding from state and federal aid bills enabled Gandiaga to make the hires:  ARISE will receive about $1.6 million in COVID relief, according to an EdSource analysis. But Gandiaga knows the funding isn’t permanent.

“These initiatives should be something we can sustain, but it’s something that’ll last for maybe two years,” she said. “And the trauma from this is not going to be something that disappears in two years.”

Oakland Unified School District, which will receive more than $250 million in COVID relief, is also using some of the one-time funding to hire more staff, including reading tutors and paraeducators, who assist teachers in the classroom. 

Some schools are making changes to their class schedules, or keeping up the changes they made during distance learning to better suit their students’ needs. At Elmhurst United Middle School, students will begin their day with homeroom, or advisory, and continue into first period with the same teacher. Prior to the pandemic, students might have had a homeroom teacher who they didn’t see for any other subject, and homeroom might have been at the end of the day. With the new approach to homeroom, students can form a stronger connection with their teacher, said principal Kilian Betlach.

“In having it run right into first period, you can have this warm start to the day, and you’re able to build with the person you see first everyday,” Betlach said. “Hopefully that person can be an ongoing support.”

ARISE will also make changes to its class schedule this year, in a different way. Previously, students had seven classes each day. But during distance learning, students found it difficult to manage seven virtual class periods with seven different teachers, Gandiaga said. In the fall, ARISE’s nearly 400 students will have four classes per semester, so they can also forge deeper relationships with their teachers. 

One thing Gandiaga isn’t focused on? Learning loss.

“Students have learned a lot, they’ve just not learned the things that the state or Common Core wants them to learn,” she said, referring to guidelines that several states, including California, have established for reading and math standards. “Our students are coming through in this moment having learned an immense amount about themselves, their families, public health, and what it takes to get through difficulties. They’ve learned about vaccinations, viruses, and things that we maybe wish that they didn’t have to learn about.”

Welcoming students with new routines

After being away from school buildings for 16 months, students and staff will face a learning curve in figuring out how to be at school again. Saun-Toy Trotter, a school psychotherapist who works at Castlemont and McClymonds high schools, emphasized that creating clear welcoming routines for students at the start of the year is critical, especially since at middle and high schools, more than half of the students returning haven’t spent time on the campus before. Incoming sixth and ninth graders would be new to the school in any year, but incoming seventh and 10th graders spent the previous year in distance learning, so they are just as unfamiliar with the school.  

“This is new for all of us, and it’s a chance to rethink culture,” Trotter said. 

Saun-Toy Trotter standing in front of mural at Castlemont
Saun-Toy Trotter, Program Manager for Mental Health at the UCSF-operated Youth Rising Health Center, stands in front of one of several murals at Castlemont High School. Trotter has worked at the clinic for 14 years, seven years of which she worked full time as a therapist. Credit: Pete Rosos Credit: Pete Rosos

She suggested having decorations and positive messages in the hallways and classrooms and other visuals to give students and school staff a warm welcome back to campus. One way to get students more involved is to encourage students to learn the welcoming routines and teach them to their classmates, Trotter said. 

At Elmhurst United, each teacher will create welcome-week activities during the first week of school that incorporate the school’s values: community and self-knowledge, academic mindset, relationship skills, and effective communication. That way, Betlach said, the welcome feels unique to Elmhurst and not like a generic back-to-school week.

Oakland Unified School District has promoted the idea of a “restorative return,” or taking the first couple weeks of school to adjust and reconnect with each other, instead of immediately jumping into academics and catching up. Trotter, the school psychotherapist, said that teachers should acknowledge that students may have regressed academically during the pandemic. Taking time to review old concepts and help students catch up is important, and so is recognizing the ordeals that everyone has been through over the past year and a half, Trotter said.

“Having a space to acknowledge loss is really important to healing. One of the important ways we recover from stress and trauma is helping people shape and tell the narrative,” she added. “How did they cope? How did they survive? What did they do as a family or community during this time? Opportunities to tell the story, and to hear each other’s stories, feels really important as well.”

Arianna Caplan, the student services director at ARISE High School, encourages teachers and other adults who work with students to put themselves in their students’ shoes: “Think about how hard it can be to come into a space with a bunch of people you don’t know,” she said. “Amplify that by a million because for teens and young people, so much of their experience is about identity, acceptance, and peers. How do you create a space that allows people to feel welcomed for all of who they are?”

Last year, after her student’s mom died from COVID-19, fifth grade teacher Mayra Alvarado took a restorative approach with her class at Manzanita SEED Elementary. That meant doing virtual restorative circles, where students could talk openly about their feelings, their fears, and their anxieties. This year, Alvarado will make restorative circles an even bigger part of her classroom.

Getting students to contribute to class discussions during Zoom calls and in breakout rooms was a challenge all year, Alvarado said. But after convening more restorative circles with her students, she noticed that they were more comfortable with each other, which led to them being more talkative during class sessions. 

“Now, more than ever, [I’m going to have] morning meetings, check-ins, circles, to talk about how students are feeling. That’s going to be even more present in my classroom than it was before COVID,” said Alvarado, who is in her second year at Manzanita SEED. “So students know that I’m here for them, and that we as a community are there for each other.”

New ways to bond

Some schools are taking the weeks ahead of the first day of school to plan bonding activities for students and staff. ARISE, the Fruitvale high school, is hosting grade level retreats at Camp Arroyo in Livermore, where each class will spend a day doing restorative justice circles, community-building exercises, and other activities. 

At Bay Area Technology School, incoming sixth and seventh graders participated in Camp BayTech, which gave them an opportunity to meet, make friends, and get to know their campus before school begins on Aug. 2. The school partnered with Higher Ground Neighborhood Development Corporation, a nonprofit community organization, to create the two-week camp, which included outdoor games, academics to get kids caught up, and enrichment classes like cooking, art, drumming, and basketball.

“My favorite part is you can come here and make friends and be part of a family,” said 11-year-old Janey Santiago. “When I’m here, I feel safe. Even with COVID I still feel safe.”

Janey said she only knew one other person from her elementary school attending BayTech, which isn’t unusual. Camp BayTech hosted 50 incoming sixth graders from 25 different elementary schools, said Akua Franklin, the after-school program coordinator with Higher Ground. For many students, it was the first time they’d been around other kids their age in months.

“It’s an opportunity for them to be kids for the first time in 18 months,” said Seth Feldman, the superintendent of Bay Area Technology School, which serves sixth to 12th grade students.

The school also hired BayTech seniors as camp leaders, who helped to lead activities, take students around campus and teach them about the school. Dominic San took up the opportunity to be a camp leader so he could meet the new students and staff and just to be around other people. San, 17, is looking forward to being back in the classroom when school starts next week.

“It was distracting being at home and trying to learn,” he said. San lives with his parents, two brothers, three cousins, an aunt, two uncles, and his grandparents. “The internet was barely holding on.”

The final bit of advice from Trotter, the school mental health counselor, focuses on students

“Listen to students. Collaborate and partner with them in terms of how the school year looks,” she said. “Make sure that students are part of the answer to how we navigate this next school year.”

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.