Tolani King (left) and Misty Cross watch from the podium as superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell and OUSD board president Shanthi Gonzales leave the dais during a recess. Credit: Kathryn Styer Martínez

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Despite an announcement yesterday by Gov. Gavin Newsom and Oakland Unified School District officials that teachers and other school staff will be subject to vaccination or weekly COVID testing, many community members want to see even more stringent safety protocols in Oakland schools. Parents forced the Oakland school board’s meeting into a recess Wednesday night when they demanded that district leaders address their safety concerns. 

OUSD was one of the first Bay Area school districts to return to school this week, amidst soaring coronavirus cases, especially among those who are unvaccinated. The district announced late Tuesday that all teachers, administrators, staff, contractors, and volunteers must get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing and Newsom followed by announcing a statewide policy for public and private school teachers and staff

Read more about the Oakland Unified School District board

The next regular school board meeting will be Wednesday, Aug. 25.

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What do school board members do, exactly?

Prior to the policy change, regular testing was not required for either students or staff, but just recommended for unvaccinated individuals. Two online petitions begun by a teacher and an OUSD staff member have been making the rounds to require students and staff to get vaccinated or get tested, and for the school district to provide on-site testing at every school campus. School board Director Mike Hutchinson, who represents District 5, introduced a resolution Wednesday night to have OUSD offer testing on every campus.

“Superintendent Johnson-Trammell, I’m just going to ask directly: When can we get weekly COVID testing for our students?” he asked the district superintendent at yesterday’s board meeting. “I’m still waiting for somebody to say, or anyone to join me in saying, ‘Let’s make this happen.’”

The district currently offers testing at 10 campuses and home test kits are available at every campus. The test kits include a nasal swab that individuals can use to swab both nostrils, then place it in a test strip, and it produces results in 15 minutes. Individuals are responsible for self-reporting the results with Primary, the COVID-19 tracking software that the district uses. 

District 5 Director Mike Hutchinson called on the other board members to support his resolution to offer testing at every school campus. Credit: Kathryn Styer Martínez

Testing is required for unvaccinated staff beginning Sept. 7, and recommended for students and staff if they have symptoms, regardless of vaccination status. 

Superintendent’s contract discussions spark outrage

​​Wednesday night’s meeting, which was the first of the academic year and the first in-person meeting since March 2020, was disrupted by parents frustrated that the board began discussing a contract extension and salary increase for Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell after many families had raised alarm about school conditions. The parents said that many campus spaces, like cafeterias, lack air purifiers and don’t have adequate ventilation, that janitorial staffing isn’t adequate, and the district doesn’t have a good contact tracing program to monitor outbreaks. 

Misty Cross, a parent of two OUSD students, interrupted the board’s conversation about the contract extension to make an emotional plea.

Misty Cross interrupts board members as they begin to discuss Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell’s employment contract at the first school board meeting of the academic year on Aug. 11. Credit: Kathryn Styer Martínez

“Do you have children? Do you understand what we are upset about?” she asked. “We are in here raising our opinions about the safety of our children, and you’re sitting here, discussing for three minutes, why she deserves a raise?”

Cross, who is also a member of the Moms4Housing group that began occupied a vacant, investor-owned West Oakland home in 2019 to draw attention to the housing and homelessness crisis, was incensed that members of the public each got one minute to talk about the district’s pandemic preparedness, while board members got more time than that to praise the superintendent. Cross and other community members questioned the appropriateness of bringing forward a new contract when the superintendent’s current agreement doesn’t expire until 2023. As the mom approached the dais where board members sat in the great room at La Escuelita, board president Shanthi Gonzales announced a five-minute recess. 

Read superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell’s new contract.

“You’re not here to stand up for our kids if you’re walking out. That’s what they told me today,” Cross said in an interview during the recess.

The break lasted for an hour and the meeting resumed solely over Zoom, with board members logged in from their homes. When the meeting began again, the student board directors, Oakland High School students Samantha Pal and Natalie Gallegos, had the floor.

“I would like to start by acknowledging the difficult day. We’re all going through our hardships of returning back to in-person instruction. The community is here, and as young people, we hear you. We feel what you feel,” Pal said. She urged the adult board members to “keep listening to our youth, keep listening to our community, answer our questions, and meet us where we are, so that we can all show up together, no matter how isolated we’ve been.”

The superintendent’s contract includes a base salary of $294,000, $14,000 more than she currently received. Benefits bring the total proposed compensation to more than $450,000. Among other California superintendents, San Francisco chief Vincent Matthews receives a base salary of $328,879 per year, and San Jose Unified superintendent Nancy Albarrán receives a base salary of $274,888.

The new agreement also includes the option for Johnson-Trammell to take a three-month sabbatical from April to June 2022, which appears to be the first such clause among superintendent contracts in California. During that time, the district would be led by a member of OUSD’s senior leadership team as acting superintendent. 

Johnson-Trammell, an Oakland native, has spent most of her career in OUSD and has led the district since 2017. She’s overseen the district through school closures, the first teachers’ strike since 1996, massive budget cuts, and now a historic pandemic. Board members commended her leadership and tenure of four years, which makes her among longest serving superintendent in decades. Her new contract, which will expire in 2025, was approved in a 6-to-1 vote. Hutchinson abstained, despite his support of the superintendent, because he thought the board should consider the contract at a later meeting.

Parents and health officials criticize safety precautions

Several local community leaders and doctors are also asking the board to put in place more clear-cut mitigation efforts, especially in light of the more transmissible delta variant. Their letter, sent to board members and superintendent Johnson-Trammell on the first day of school, urged officials to acknowledge that the pandemic has had disparate impacts on certain neighborhoods. They want to see schools adjust their mitigation strategies based on that risk, said Dr. Noha Aboelata, the CEO of Roots Community Health Center, one of the authors of the letter. 

“The decisions around what can be done, or what should be done in this pandemic have been made based on averages,” Dr. Aboelata told The Oaklandside in an interview. “When you look at specific neighborhoods, you see that some areas still have very high case rates and positivity rates, and some are increasing.”

She pointed out that public health guidance recommends test positivity rates remain below 5% in a community for schools and businesses to reopen. The 94603 zip code that Roots serves has a positivity rate twice that, at about 10.3%, according to county data, and Alameda County’s overall positivity rate is at 5.8%. Aboelata cautioned the district to do more than the baseline guidance provided by the state and county health departments.

Many parents, family members, students, and teachers called in to plead with board members to recognize that the delta variant is different from conditions earlier in the pandemic, and that the district should be implementing stricter safety measures, not relaxing them.

Oakland Unified School District board members and superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell hold an in-person board meeting for the first time since March 2020. Credit: Kathryn Styer Martínez

“My concerns are that, number one, the kids are not vaccinated,” said Marlo Briscoe, a parent of a Chabot Elementary student. “There’s so much about this variant that has changed. And there are more things about this virus that even the medical doctors are still learning about. This is a concern to so many parents.”

During Wednesday’s meeting, OUSD’s COVID lead Sailaja Suresh defended the district’s strategy to offer testing at 10 sites across the city, take-home tests at every campus, and rapid response teams that will travel to a school when there’s a positive case, instead of dispatching testing teams to more schools on a regular basis.

“We want there to be established testing centers where families know exactly when and where they can go get tests, that is not dependent on a schedule that rotates through where you have to wait until Friday for your turn to test because that’s when the mobile vaccination clinic or the testing team is going to be available at your site,” she said. 

Another challenge to implementing weekly testing at all campuses is that OUSD would have to hire enough testing teams to carry out the testing, Suresh added. And before offering weekly testing at every campus, Suresh and other district officials are monitoring the demand for the at-home tests to determine whether to request more test kits from the state.

The district has also announced this week that beginning Monday, Aug. 16, students and school staff will be required to wear masks outdoors. 

Sojourner Truth program needs improvement

The comments from speakers at Wednesday’s board meeting also made clear that some families are dissatisfied with OUSD’s distance learning option, the Sojourner Truth independent study program. Several parents oppose the district’s requirement that students give up their seats at their current school to enroll in the independent study program, which means that when students choose return to in-person learning in the future, they’ll have to reapply and could get assigned to a different school than they were at prior to the pandemic. Not being guaranteed a spot back at their prior school could deter some from taking up the option, even if they feel it’s safer for their family. 

“It becomes a whole different consideration that I’m not willing to give up lightly. Because that’s where my community is, that’s where my daughter’s friends are,” said Jill Karjian, whose daughter attends Manzanita SEED. “As hard as distance learning was, at least she had familiar faces.”

About 360 students are currently enrolled, and staff expected 500 overall, said Sondra Aguilera, the district’s chief academic officer. But over the past week, the requests to transfer into the program have increased by about 100 students each day, and OUSD currently doesn’t have enough independent study teachers to teach them, Aguilera said, so there is a waitlist while OUSD hires more instructors

Parents also complained that they were given incorrect Zoom passwords for their classes, that students have had little live instruction time over the past few days, and that the program doesn’t provide bilingual instruction for students coming from dual language programs. But if enough families request it, the district has to consider offering bilingual instruction, Aguilera said. 

Aguilera said that there are improvements coming to the program, and also promised to work with the enrollment team to determine if there’s a way to make it easier for students to get their seats back at their current schools if they switch back to in-person learning from the Sojourner Truth program. Sojourner Truth is its own school and because districts are funded based on attendance counts at each school, students can’t be enrolled in two schools at the same time.

Read Director Mike Hutchinson’s resolutions to provide weekly testing and allow students to re-enroll in their prior schools.

Director Hutchinson introduced two resolutions Wednesday night: one would have OUSD offer testing to students and staff at every campus, and the other would guarantee that students who participate in independent study will be able to re-enroll at their in-person school.

Because the proposals were just introduced Wednesday, they didn’t receive any formal board discussion. The resolutions will be taken up for discussion and a vote at a future meeting. 

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.