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A version of this article was first published by Oakland Voices, a nine-month program led by the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education that trains Oakland residents to tell the stories of their neighborhoods.

As the pandemic started to ramp up early in 2020, teachers in many places were remanded to a virtual environment. In Oakland Unified School District, the pivot from in-person to online happened that year in mid-March, and although many students were happy at first to not have to go to school anymore, that momentary joy wore off as distance learning stretched into summer school and nearly the entire 2020-2021 school year. Schools finally re-opened for the last few weeks of the spring 2021 semester, and subsequently for summer school. This fall, OUSD schools re-opened in full swing. Oakland Voices chatted with OUSD educators about what they have seen and what’s changed since the return of in-person learning.

Dennis Guikema, principal at Sankofa United Elementary School

Dennis Guikema is in his second year as Principal at Sankofa United after it was merged with Kaiser Elementary. Guikema started teaching English in Oakland in 1994 and moved into administration 12 years ago. An avid cyclist and world traveler, Guikema lives in North Oakland with his wife and their 3-year-old daughter. Credit: Peter Wilson

We’re being extra cautious. Our COVID protocols make it such that, what would have been just sniffles in the past, is something that we have to treat as a serious symptom. It’s also really difficult for families; kids are going home more often and having to stay home a little longer as a precaution. We have had to send kids home almost every day for some sort of symptom.  

Families, by and large, have expressed a tremendous amount of gratitude and have enjoyed having students back in school. I also find there’s a tremendous amount of grace on how tight we have to be on our safety protocols; there’s a balance of grace and appreciation. I have not had a single parent who has expressed a negative sentiment about having masks at school.  

At the same time, we as a school do not take a punitive stance if a child doesn’t mask up. We are using positive reinforcement to encourage the student to wear the mask, and kids by and large are willing to do that. I have not had any circumstances where a child has blatantly refused to wear a mask. There are kids who need more reminders than others.

Vilma Serrano, transitional kindergarten teacher at Melrose Leadership Academy, OEA executive board member

Vilma Serrano is a leader in the Oakland Education Association, the local teachers’ union, and has been an executive board member since 2019. She has nine years of teaching experience. Photo courtesy of Vilma Serrano

At the start of the pandemic, teachers were starting to get very worried, hearing about how transmissible it was. OEA was involved most of the year, through bargaining, around safety. Without those safety conditions, we felt it wasn’t really possible to come back and to be able to keep students safe.  It’s not that the OEA intentionally kept schools closed. Our bargaining took a really long time, to increase ventilation and the distribution of air purifiers; these were not compromises that we were willing to make. 

Community members need to understand how resilient students have been during this time. I teach four- and five-year-olds. People are nervous about them not being able to keep their masks on; but they are so aware of what is happening. They’re part of a community; when we explain that is a way to help them stay safe, you might be surprised at how willing they are.

What we have learned in terms of best practices is to have smaller classes and flexible schedules—those are the lessons of the last year, so we can ensure better outcomes.

Michelle Deiro, principal at Oakland Adult & Career Education

Michelle Deiro is the former principal at MetWest and a former teacher there, as well as having taught and worked at Leadership High School and James Logan High School. She has 20 years of teaching experience and six years of administrative leadership roles. Photo courtesy of Michelle Deiro

We are working hard to meet the changing needs of our students, as they experience the impact of COVID. There is so much misinformation out there and many of our students just don’t know reliable news sources where they can get solid information. We are working to give them what they need so they can make informed decisions for themselves and their families. 

This is a prime opportunity to really re-think how schools work and how students learn. Students should not be sitting in classes all day, five days a week, following instructions and being compliant. Schools should be places where active learning, hands-on learning, and authentic learning is happening—in and outside of the school building.

To teachers, I would say: Be gentle with yourself, with your students, and with your colleagues. Have compassion and tenderness, as COVID brings so much trauma for so many, in different ways. Be kind.

Toussaint Haki Stewart, P.E. teacher at Dewey Academy Alternative High School

Toussaint Haki Stewart has taught for 19 years, mostly P.E. and plant-based nutrition. He also teaches Career Technical Education (CTE) course in the Health and Fitness pathway and the Planting Justice program. Photo courtesy of Toussaint Haki Stewart

It’s interesting, this year compared to the years before the pandemic. Attendance is better. I’ve given out a greater percentage of A’s and B’s. The students who struggled to attend online and just didn’t show up to Zoom and didn’t turn in their work… they have been thriving in person. The kids who are thriving are the ones who never dressed for P.E.; the ones who always cut class, and they’re learning how to use fitness to strengthen their lifestyle so they can better themselves. We also meditate before class every day, and I think that has also been medicine for them.

As a teacher, I have been invigorated, because I missed being in the classroom so much. I think it’s taken my teaching to a different level because I appreciate having a face, a body, a young mind in front of me that I can pour into. I need that, that’s my medicine as an educator. You don’t take it for granted, that you see a student in person. Even though I have to wear a mask the whole class, you’re my student, I’m your teacher, and I’m here and you’re here: Let’s go!

Loraine Woodard, ELD teacher at Oakland International High School

Loraine Woodard is an English Language Development and reading teacher at Oakland International High School, teaching 9th and 10th graders. She has been teaching for 21 years.Photo courtesy of Loraine Woodard

I started the year teaching 100% of my classes outdoors. There are picnic tables in the courtyard we can use. Little by little, we’re doing some activities indoors as well, but I like the flexibility to go back and forth. It not only keeps us more COVID safe, but it also makes class feel a little more free, like summer camp. Since our classes are 90 minutes long, movement is important. 

Many of our students have not returned but some have moved out of the area, some are working, some want to go to a school closer to home. Students report that it takes an hour or two to get to school on public buses and that they are very crowded and unreliable. They seem to be in need of social interaction and really glad to be back in school. They want to learn English, but also want to socialize. I try to structure classes so they get both and so far, it’s going well. 

This is an extremely unique year. We are all just trying to understand each other, adults, and kids, and give each other lots of leeway. We’ve all gone through a horrible pandemic, a sudden jolt that has changed the world and made it more unpredictable. And it’s not over yet, so I feel like we’re just trying to live day-by-day and enjoy the moment. 

Nestor Gonzalez, biology teacher at Dewey Academy

Nestor Gonzalez teaches 10th, 11th, and 12th-grade science at Dewey Academy, a continuation high school in Oakland. He has taught for 31 years.  Photo courtesy of Nestor Gonzalez

My concerns with the return to the classroom was and still is the monster that is COVID: Was my district really going to assure our safety? And what would be the state of mind of my students? The reality of working with young people in masks, in close quarters, was and is a challenge. 

Not all students have returned to Dewey Academy; we are at 50% of capacity. What has been positive has been the smaller class size. As a teacher, I can focus much deeper and understand the needs of each student in all my classes.

The students who have returned to school have been wonderful. They are bright, energetic, and motivated to learn. In distance learning, I was able to teach by lecturing on Zoom and used assignments on Google Classroom to add to lectures. Our Zoom time was moments of relationship-building, explaining the assignments, and a lot of listening to student responses with great patience. It was very difficult to engage students in distance learning and to motivate and inspire them to work and attend class online consistently.

Sara Shepich, kindergarten teacher at Global Family Elementary Dual Immersion in Fruitvale

Sara Shepich has been teaching in Oakland for 5 years and is a dual-language Spanish and English immersion teacher. Photo courtesy of Sara Shepich

I think what has changed the most is mask-wearing and our perceptions of what is acceptable. For kindergarten, masks are interesting because while kids have become accustomed to wearing them, they add an extra layer of challenge if a student is still developing speech—which most are at this developmental stage. Developing language—or two and three languages, for my students—humans depend on seeing the mouth shapes and movements, which isn’t possible with masks on. So, we’re doing the best we can with that. 

For kindergarteners, something like sword fighting with food on their forks would have been considered developmentally appropriate—although maybe still gross—pre-pandemic. Now it’s simply unacceptable. Or even eating lunch together at the same table side by side: Many students haven’t mastered the art of not talking with food in their mouths. While my site argued for and won all meals to be eaten outdoors, students are still not distanced at tables outside. I still worry transmission will happen at lunch. 

While this socialization work is a very big part of kindergarten, there is still huge academic pressure. The expectation by the end of the year is that students are decoding, sounding out, recognizing sight words, and reading at a level 4. Some of our students, for varied reasons, have never been exposed to books before, or held a pencil, or been read to. So working on that balance of time to develop social skills and developing academic skills is a lot. 

Maggie Rogers, librarian at Montera Middle School

Maggie Rogers has six years of professional library experience and 10 years of volunteer experience. Photo courtesy of Maggie Rogers

Perhaps the biggest challenge is similar to what I think most educators are also facing—how safe do I feel in a shared space, and how can I make the environment as safe as possible. 

If students appear distracted, I just try to focus on them individually. Make eye contact. Ask them to remind me of their name. Names are really important to me because I think every student wants to be noticed and remembered. That means I have to try to remember around 650 names. I obviously don’t remember all of them, but I do try. Focusing them on a one-to-one, positive, personal exchange helps keep them on task.

I would say that the students are pretty excited to be back at school but are still getting used to it. Maybe some of the excitement-related behavior that we would normally see in the Spring is showing up a bit early. Kids like to test the boundaries, especially middle schoolers. I’d say we are seeing some of that a bit earlier than usual.

Pamela Long, 3rd-grade teacher at International Community School

Pamela Long has taught for 28 years, with 13 of those years at International Community School in Oakland. Photo courtesy Pamela Long

Kids are so happy; when it’s time to write in their journals, they all wanna say, “I love being in school, I’m happy because I’m in school,” so that’s super cute.  

What can be hard for some kids is to have the masks on all day. It’s harder to hear each other, that’s the biggest impediment. Before we could intermingle with other classes, now we have to keep the kids in bubbles.

If a kid has a cough or sneeze, in the past, it was no big deal, but now if there’s a cough or a sneeze, we have to send them to the office, their parents have to pick them up, they have to get COVID tested, they have to miss a bunch of days of school. It’s a huge inconvenience for the parents but at least it’s less of an inconvenience than having their kids home every day for a whole year. We have a test site at our school Wednesdays and Fridays, but they take them to other places, too, maybe La Clinica, maybe the Native American Health Center. I hate for the parents to have to leave their jobs because it’s not like many of them have the freedom of saying, “I’ll be back later.”

One concern about having returned to in-class instruction is that it’s very hard to get a sub. If I get sick, I wouldn’t be able to find a sub. There’s a huge shortage of teaching staff and subs throughout the entire district, so that’s a big concern.

A benefit of having been on Zoom is that the kids are more tech-savvy, most have computers at home now, Chromebooks from the district. Sometimes they lose their chargers, but otherwise, most kids know how to do things online that maybe they didn’t know how to do before.

Debora Gordon

Debora Gordon is a writer, artist, educator and non-violence activist. She has been living in Oakland since 1991, moving here to become a teacher in the Oakland Unified School District. In all of these roles, Debora is interested in developing a life of the mind. “As a mere human living in these simultaneously thrilling and troubled times,” Debora says, “I try to tread lightly, live thoughtfully, teach peace, and not take myself too seriously.”