Students in Carmelita Ruiz's dual language kindergarten class play outside on the first day of in-person learning at Lockwood STEAM Academy in Oakland. Credit: Kathryn Styer Martínez

Kaytlynn King, her husband, and two of their children, including 4-year-old Darielle, walked through the gates at Lockwood STEAM Academy on Monday morning, ready for Darielle’s first day of transitional kindergarten. As they posed for a first day of school photo in front of a giant mural on the Havenscourt campus, King was fighting back tears.

“After going through the pandemic, her being able to go to school is so exciting,” said King. “I’m extremely nervous but I’m putting my faith in God and the school to keep her safe.”

Mixed feelings were common across Oakland schools on Monday, the first day of the 2021-2022 school year. For most students, it’s the first time in nearly a year and a half they’ve been able to learn in their classrooms. While students and teachers were overjoyed to be on campuses together in person again, coronavirus cases are surging in Alameda County, and the Oakland Unified School District is following state and county guidelines, including universal masking and health screenings for staff and campus visitors, to prevent spread of the virus. The district has not implemented a vaccine mandate for teachers, nor is testing required. District officials are encouraging students to get vaccinated if they’re old enough, and have partnered with health organizations to host pop-up vaccine clinics on school campuses. Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell emphasized that the district is providing access to testing at 10 sites across the city, and is working with community organizations to coordinate more.

But for many parents and staff, their nervousness about the pandemic faded once they saw kids climbing jungle gyms, running across the blacktop, or sitting on classroom rugs with each other. 

Jordan Baxter Stern, the music teacher at West Oakland Middle School, is most excited to get to know his students and play music together in person, instead of over Zoom. This year he’ll be teaching a string instruments class, and his wind instruments class will be held outdoors since instruments like trumpets, flutes, and saxophones can’t be played with a mask. As Stern, in his second year of teaching, tidied up the music room Monday, he talked about his hopes of being able to bring professional artists to play in front of the class, and taking field trips to a record store. 

“It was wild trying to get to know middle schoolers on Zoom and teaching music with a delay,” he said. “Being in person is a lot better.”

Gloria Mendoza began her day by welcoming families to Lockwood STEAM Academy, a new school formed out of the merger of Futures Elementary and Community United Elementary School in East Oakland. Mendoza is the school’s culture and climate ambassador, a new position created for school safety officers, whose roles were reimagined after the Oakland School Police Department was eliminated last year.

“No more Officer Mendoza. No more handcuffs or uniforms, because that can intimidate,” she said about the change. Her new uniform is a collared shirt and jeans. “They’re so excited to be in person again. It’s like Christmas.”

Most of the district’s 35,000 students are attending in-person school, while about 850 have chosen to enroll at Sojourner Truth, the district’s independent study school, so that they can continue learning virtually. Across the district, teachers and staff are focusing on a restorative restart to the year: taking the first couple weeks of school to make sure that students feel comfortable with each other and with their teachers, acknowledging the loss and upheaval of the past 17 months, and figuring out how to be at school again. 

Superintendent Johnson-Trammell made visits to several schools throughout the day, along with other district officials, Mayor Libby Schaaf, state superintendent of public instruction Tony Thurmond, city council members, and school board directors. 

At Coliseum College Prep Academy, all the desks in a sixth grade classroom were pushed to the back or the side of the room. In the center of the room, students sat in a large circle as their teacher, Ainate Yiaueki led the community circle. The goal was for students to share their thoughts and feelings about the first day, and listen to each other. 

“The community circle is where we listen from our heart. We respect what others have to say,” Yiaueki said.

Among the regular hallway and classroom decorations, like words of encouragement and the alphabet, reminders to wash your hands and wear a mask were ubiquitous. Social distancing requirements have been relaxed at all OUSD schools, so students were able to sit next to each other in classrooms and play games that included contact during recess, unlike earlier in the spring. 

For some teachers, the first day of school meant reassuring their students that they were ready for their new grade. In Dale Turner’s fourth grade class at Horace Mann Elementary School in East Oakland’s Fairfax neighborhood, students began a math exercise using their names: Each letter of the alphabet corresponded to the numbers one through 26, and students had to add up the value of the letters in their name. 

But before they got started, he asked his students, whose last in-person learning experience was second grade, how they felt about math. One student raised his hand to say he had heard that fourth grade math was hard, while another student added that they had never done division before. Turner reassured them that they were ready to take on the challenge.

“We’re going to review the stuff you’ve done in third grade and just add onto it,” he said. 

For Donna McClinto, a kindergarten teacher at Lockwood STEAM, the first day of school brought back memories of her own first day of kindergarten, 31 years ago in the very same classroom she was teaching in. Her students were drawing pictures to describe how they got to school that day. 

“I remember walking into class and my mom looking through the window,” she said. “The only difference is we don’t have the chalkboard anymore.”

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.