Students arrive at Lockwood STEAM Academy, a public elementary school near the Oakland Coliseum, on the first day of the 2021-2022 school year. Credit: Kathryn Styer Martínez

For an East Oakland mom of two, the first week of school was a nightmare. 

Last Thursday evening, she got a notification from her kids’ principal that someone at their school had tested positive for COVID-19. Minutes later, another email confirmed that the case was in her fifth-grader’s class. That night, out of an abundance of caution, she separated her boys, who normally sleep in the same bedroom. Her fifth-grader woke up the next morning coughing with a 102-degree fever. He tested positive for COVID-19 later that day. Her younger son, a first-grader, tested positive on Monday.

Read Oakland Unified School District’s COVID FAQ

“If I could seriously afford to keep my house and support my children and quit my job, I would never send my kids back to school until this is all over,” said Ashley, who only shared her first name out of privacy concerns.

Ashley’s sentiments reflect what some Oakland families are thinking after the first week of school resulted in 90 positive COVID cases among students and 15 cases among staff. Oakland Unified School District enrolls about 35,000 students and employs nearly 5,000 teachers and staff across OUSD campuses and at the central district office. 

Oakland High School, Greenleaf Elementary, and Montclair Elementary each have one class in quarantine because they have three or more apparently linked cases. On Aug. 19, families at REACH Academy were notified that the two fifth grade classes would also be going into quarantine because of possibly linked positive cases in their classrooms. OUSD policy is to require an entire class to quarantine for 10 days if more than three cases are reported. 

If only one or two cases are recorded in a class, the positive individuals must quarantine for 10 days, but all other unvaccinated, asymptomatic students take part in a modified quarantine, which means they can continue attending school while undergoing twice a week testing for two weeks (they must also stop participating in activities outside of school, like sports or extracurriculars). Vaccinated students who have been exposed and don’t have symptoms do not have to quarantine.

If a student is symptomatic after exposure, the student can come back after they’ve been fever free for 24 hours, have improving symptoms and either quarantine at home for 10 days or have a negative PCR test. If a student develops COVID symptoms while at school, they are taken to an isolation space and sent home.

Confusion among parents

These nuanced and complicated safety procedures have led to a lot of confusion among parents. Some parents and teachers believe the number of cases is a sign that the district could be doing more to protect students and themselves. The situation has only strengthened their calls for regular, weekly, testing of students. But more than that, some families feel left in the dark regarding the district’s COVID policies and the reasoning behind them. Families and school staff have expressed confusion over what happens when there’s a positive case, who is required to get tested, and whether students should stay home after they’ve been exposed.

“Our schools are microcosms of the communities that they sit in. Because we have cases in the community, we expected to see cases in our schools.” — John Sasaki, OUSD

District officials maintain that their safety protocols are working as intended, but agree that there could be more transparency and communication with families. 

“We would have loved to have had zero cases. But it wasn’t particularly surprising,” said John Sasaki, an OUSD spokesperson. “Our schools are microcosms of the communities that they sit in. Because we have cases in the community, we expected to see cases in our schools.”

Sasaki added that as the school year progresses, he believes safety precautions will strengthen and become more efficient.

Dr. George Rutherford, a UCSF professor of epidemiology and biostatistics, also said that this number of cases in the first week of school is to be expected.

“Kids get infected in the community and they show up at school,” he said. “It’s to be expected that when you bring every kid in a city into a school and they’re looking for this disease, you’re going to find a bunch of it.”

Entrance to the Kaiser pop-up clinic on the Oakland Tech lawn during the 9th grade orientation.
Oakland Technical High School hosted a pop-up vaccine clinic for students and their families. Credit: Amir Aziz

Fifth grade teacher Megan Bumpus was eager to welcome her students back this year at REACH Academy.

“Setting up your classroom, putting the kids’ names on stuff, making it warm and welcoming … the kinds of things you do the first couple weeks are about community building and getting to know each other. It’s supposed to feel really good,” she told The Oaklandside. “This year it was even more important, since a lot of the kids hadn’t been in school and hadn’t been in hybrid last year. We knew this would be a big return and wanted it to feel amazing.”

And it did feel amazing for students, she said. They were thrilled to be around kids their own age. They could ask questions and have teachers in the same room as them be able to respond, as opposed to dealing with technical glitches over Zoom. But by the end of the first week, Bumpus had two positive cases in her classroom and was navigating what she called “OUSD’s COVID nightmare” of trying to keep her students safe and abide by the safety protocols.

Students were thrilled to be around kids their own age. They could ask questions and have teachers in the same room as them, as opposed to dealing with technical glitches over Zoom.

One example is what happened when one of her students was absent from school last Wednesday with a fever, and then tested positive for COVID Thursday morning. In a searing letter Bumpus sent to the school board and superintendent, she wrote that the parents of all of her students weren’t notified about the positive case until Thursday night on ParentSquare, an online communications platform that OUSD uses, and Friday via a phone call. She felt parents should have been notified as soon as the student’s parent told her, which was Thursday around 10 a.m. Parents may have made a different decision about sending their student to school that day if they’d known sooner, Bumpus said.

Sasaki, the district spokesman, said that families are notified as quickly as possible, and the goal is to be within 24 hours, but it depends on when principals receive notice that a student or staff member has tested positive.

“If we get notice at the end of the day, or we find out at 7 p.m. at night, we’re not necessarily going to be able to tell families that night,” Sasaki said. 

At Laurel Elementary, Scott Blakley’s kindergartener was exposed to a positive COVID case on the first day of school, and he was notified about it two days later on Wednesday, with instructions to continue coming to school as long as the student wasn’t showing symptoms. This modified quarantine is in line with OUSD policy based on state guidance, which aims to minimize the amount of time that students spend home from school.

Despite this procedure, Blakley decided to keep his son home anyway given that an infected person can spread COVID before they begin showing symptoms. Blakely’s son has been racking up unexcused absences while his dad keeps him home, he said. OUSD’s guidance says that if parents choose to keep students home to quarantine when it is not recommended or required, their absences will be unexcused. If a student records more than three unexcused absences in a school year, they can be considered truant, according to the California Education Code

“He’s missing the initial culture building, kids are starting to make friends, and he’s getting unexcused absences on top of that,” Blakley said. 

“Going back to physical presence at school is probably one of the most important steps for children’s overall safety and healthy development. Parents should not be afraid to send their child back to school.” — Dr. Lynn Silver, Safely Opening Schools

Dr. Lynn Silver, a pediatrician and director of the Safely Opening Schools project that has been working with Oakland Unified and other California districts to provide tests to school campuses, said that the idea of modified quarantine is to reduce the amount of time that students are away from school, supplemented with masking and regular testing.

“Going back to physical presence at school is probably one of the most important steps for children’s overall safety and healthy development,” Dr. Silver said. “Parents should not be afraid to send their child back to school.”

Silver added that there are three things parents can do to keep their children and schools safe: getting vaccinated themselves, getting their children vaccinated if they’re old enough, and giving consent for their kids to get tested at school when necessary.

Rutherford, the UCSF professor, agreed that one of the best things parents can do to protect their children, especially if they’re too young to be vaccinated, is to get vaccinated themselves.

Signs on the doors of Horace Mann Elementary school inform people that masks are required to be worn while on school property. Credit: Kathryn Styer Martínez

Ashley, the East Oakland mom, believes her older son contracted COVID at school, since her children spend all their time either at school or home, and she and her husband, who are both unvaccinated, have recently tested negative, she said. The experience has made her reconsider her hesitancy toward getting vaccinated.

While being vaccinated herself may not have prevented her sons from being ill, it would make her feel more comfortable being near her children while they’re sick. For Ashley, not being able to hold her children and talking to them through closed bedroom doors with masks on has been excruciating. While her older son’s fever has come down, he still has a cough. Her younger son is asthmatic, and has a fever, cough, and headaches. 

“He asked me, ‘Mommy, with me being positive, does that mean I’m going to get really sick and have to go to the hospital?’” she said. “He’s scared and I’m trying to calm his fears. It’s hard for me to keep that poker face because I’m scared too.”

Another parent, Maria Ramirez Leyva, received an email late last Thursday night that her seventh grader had been in close contact with someone who tested positive, and that he should begin a modified quarantine. Even though her son is vaccinated, Ramirez Leyva decided to keep him home Friday and over the weekend, until they could get him tested a few days later. 

The CDC recommends that vaccinated individuals wait three to five days to get tested after they were exposed. (For those who are not fully vaccinated, they should be tested immediately and, if negative, again in five to seven days or immediately if symptoms develop during quarantine.) On Monday, Ramirez Leyva took her son to a pop-up testing site at Melrose Leadership Academy, and he tested negative on a rapid test and returned to class. 

Ramirez Leyva added that her family has had multiple family members die from COVID and others who have been seriously ill. The family also lives with Ramirez Leyva’s elderly parents, and her husband has had pneumonia twice, so they’re being extra cautious and strict about quarantining. 

She also questioned the logic of a modified quarantine.

“The whole idea of a modified quarantine makes absolutely no sense. The kids can be at school but they can’t do anything before and after?” she said. “They shouldn’t be around any other citizens.”

Rapid response teams of nurses

Part of OUSD’s COVID procedures include rapid response teams of nurses that are dispatched to schools whenever there is a report of a positive case, to provide tests to students and staff who were in close contact. Those teams are supposed to arrive at campuses within 24 hours of the report, Sasaki said, but that is also dependent on when the district gets the notification. 

At REACH Academy, the rapid response team arrived midday Friday to test Bumpus’s fifth grade class after she was originally notified of her student’s positive case on Thursday morning. Laurel Elementary, Blakley’s son’s school, is also one of the district’s 10 testing hubs, so he was able to get his son tested on Friday and the following Monday (after being originally exposed on Aug. 9, the first day of school).

Like others, Ramirez Leyva believes the district could do more to better explain its COVID procedures, provide the evidence behind them, and alleviate concerns and fears that some parents have about exposures. Right now, parents just get an email that there have been positive cases on campus without much more information.

“I think that makes people more scared than anything else,” she said. 

Maria Zavala, mom of a second grader at Manzanita SEED Elementary, said that although positive cases among students and teachers seemed inevitable (her school has had three cases), she felt that her school did an adequate job of notifying parents and that pop-up testing at her site went smoothly. But she still feels conflicted about whether it’s safe to send her son to school. 

“When I’m at the school, I feel like I’m fine there. Then when I’m away from school I think about it and I’m like, ‘Is this what I should be doing?’ I’m really torn,” she said. 

Zavala added that she would like to know more about which classes had the positive cases, so she could share that information with other concerned parents.

Some are also questioning the district’s meal time procedures. Ashley found it alarming that after two positive cases in her son’s class, they were still eating indoors in the cafeteria. At Laurel, Blakley’s son eats breakfast in his classroom with his classmates, and lunch is in the cafeteria with the transitional kindergarten, kindergarten, and first grade classes. 

“Why are we going through all these other protocols and mask mandates if we’re just going to let the kids be maskless twice a day in close proximity indoors?” — Scott Blakley, parent

The modified quarantine rules allow students to continue attending school after they’ve been exposed if they were wearing masks the entire time. Blakley questioned how that guidance could apply when students are unmasked while eating breakfast and lunch near each other.

“Why are we going through all these other protocols and mask mandates if we’re just going to let the kids be maskless twice a day in close proximity indoors?” Blakley asked. 

The district’s COVID policies suggest that students and staff eat outdoors if there’s space, and if they do eat indoors, students should be spaced out. At some schools that share campuses with another school, like REACH Academy and Manzanita SEED, outdoor space is limited. 

Whether students eat indoors or outside depends on their campus and the amount of space that they have, Sasaki said.

“We’re still improving these systems and figuring out the best way to do it. Some schools may have more challenges than others based on how much space they have,” he said. 

Outdoor classroom environemnts for learning at Sankofa Academy
An outdoor classroom at Sankofa United Elementary School makes use of tree stumps as chairs. Credit: Amir Aziz

The district also said it provided tents for an outdoor classroom at every campus, but at schools with more resources and parents to fundraise, some schools have more outdoor spaces than others. 

State guidance also dropped recommendations for six feet of distance between students in their classrooms, which means that classes of nearly 30 have students sitting near each other. At REACH Academy, Bumpus said she has a class of 29, and the two students who tested positive sit right next to each other. 

“Social distancing maybe could have helped with that,” Bumpus said.

Jimmy Barbuto is a social studies teacher at Skyline High School, where he also serves as one of the school’s two safety leads. In that role he’s supposed to lead safety walk-throughs, provide information to students, families, and staff, monitor safety protocols, but Barbuto said he hasn’t received much direction from the school district on how exactly he should carry out each of those tasks. On his own, he shared a slideshow with staff from a teacher in another school district with instructions about how to use the at-home test kits that are available at every campus. He’s also been helping teachers file work orders to get the windows in their classrooms fixed so they can open. Barbuto said he’s been waiting for two weeks to have the window in his own classroom fixed.

“It feels like the district is in a little bit of disarray around this and was caught flat-footed,” he said. “Maybe they assumed we’d have lots of vaccinated people coming back, but now they’re dealing with something very different. And a much more potent variant that’s here than we thought in June.

He’d like to see more communication with students and their families, like advertising when pop-up testing will be available, encouraging students to get tested, and having teachers get tested to set an example for their students.  

At Oakland High School, senior Samantha Pal tries to wait until the last minute to walk to her next class to avoid the school’s crowded hallways. Oakland High had 20 positive cases last week, the most of any OUSD school, and one class has been quarantined for 10 days. Pal, who is also a student board director for OUSD, is in a modified quarantine this week. 

“All of my teachers are saying, ‘Some work is going to be online, other work is going to be on paper,’ because who knows who’s going to be quarantining the next day?” she said. 

“We don’t even know if we’re going to make it to our homecoming. We’re ready to plan all these school events, but how can we do it safely? We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, we don’t know what to expect for next week.” — Samantha Pal, student

There’s a lot of uncertainty among students about whether school will continue as it is in person. She and other student leaders are eager to plan social events for their classmates, but are hesitant to plan too far in advance, because conditions could get worse. For the seniors, their last completely normal school year was their freshman year, and the thought that their senior year could also be upended bums them out, Pal said. 

“We don’t even know if we’re going to make it to our homecoming. We’re ready to plan all these school events, but how can we do it safely?” she said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, we don’t know what to expect for next week.”

There’s been no discussion of moving to a hybrid or full distance learning model, Sasaki said. District leaders are hopeful that the delta variant’s peak is imminent, and that cases will soon begin to decline, along with some families’ fears.  

Calls for weekly COVID-19 tests

The confusion of the first week of school has bolstered calls for OUSD to test students weekly in order to weed out as many cases as possible and contain the spread. Proponents point to Los Angeles Unified School District, where all students and staff, regardless of vaccination status, must submit to testing every week. In the two weeks ahead of the start of school, the effort caught 3,255 positive cases among students, out of more than 450,000 who were expected to go to school in person, according to the Los Angeles Times. Stanford University also announced that all students would be required to get tested weekly, be vaccinated, and wear masks at school. 

Testing in OUSD is currently required for students after they’ve been exposed to a positive case, and encouraged for symptomatic individuals. Students who are experiencing symptoms must quarantine at home and show a negative PCR test before returning to school, or show a doctor’s note attributing their symptoms to something else if they want to return to school before the quarantine period is up. Beginning Sept. 7, teachers and staff who are not vaccinated will be required to undergo testing twice a week. Testing is provided to school communities through the district’s 10 testing hubs, at-home test kits available at every campus, and the rapid response teams that come to schools when there’s been a case. The district has been working to expand its testing capacity and extend the hours that the 10 testing sites are open, and OUSD is encouraging any unvaccinated students and their family members to get tested weekly.

Mike Hutchinson, who represents Fruitvale on the school board, has introduced a resolution for Oakland Unified to provide weekly testing for students. Board president Shanthi Gonzales decides when resolutions will be brought forward for discussion and a vote. Gonzales said that district staff are working to estimate how much it would cost to implement the weekly testing. If those estimates are in by Friday, Aug. 20, then the board will discuss them at the Aug. 25 meeting, she said. 

Silver, the director of Safely Opening Schools, said that she strongly supports weekly testing of all children, especially those who are unvaccinated, since children can be asymptomatic and still have COVID. But the core of her message is for parents. 

“Parents, support your child masking, get vaccinated and get your kids vaccinated. Consent to testing and support expanding testing until this gets better, but send your kids back to school,” Silver said. “School is important for children.” 

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.