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

The biggest education news in 2021 was undoubtedly the reopening of schools during a pandemic. 

When schools abruptly closed in March 2020, many people thought that they’d be open again in a few weeks, or certainly by the fall. But the pandemic raged on as school leaders grappled with how to reopen school buildings safely while spending money to purchase masks, hand sanitizer, outdoor classroom equipment, and more. Students in most public schools in Oakland continued in distance learning through a dangerous winter surge of COVID-19 cases in Alameda County. The promise of vaccines for teachers and school staff became the light at the end of the tunnel in early 2021, and most recently, students have also become eligible for the vaccine. 

Here’s how the rest of the year played out in Oakland. 

Families, teacher, and the school district debated how to safely reopen schools

Elena Njemanze, teacher, with her baby.
Kindergarten teacher Elena Njemanze, who caught COVID-19 from her daughter, wanted to see more safety measures in place before returning to school. Credit: Amir Aziz

In an effort to incentivize schools to reopen sooner, health officials in February prioritized teachers and school staff for the COVID vaccine in February. While getting vaccinated did ease many teachers’ fears about returning to the classroom, some still worried about their unvaccinated students and their students’ families.

In March, The Oaklandside set out to answer some of the examine some of the big questions surrounding the school reopening debate: What safety measures do schools need to reopen safely? How are teachers and school staff reaching missing students? What did it take for private schools to open with little to no COVID transmission among students? What toll has the pandemic taken on students’ mental health?

Before teachers could go back into the classroom, they spent weeks bargaining through the Oakland Education Association teachers’ union with district leadership to determine their working conditions. Their biggest concern was evaluating how safe it was to return to the classroom given the level of COVID spread in the community, and teachers wanted to tie reopening to the state’s colored tier system. In March, the district and union landed on a hybrid, staggered schedule that offered students the opportunity to come to school a few days a week, for a few hours. Pre-K through second graders returned to schools that month, and older students started heading back to campus in April.

When OUSD welcomed elementary school students back to their campuses on a part-time basis, many were thrilled to see their friends, teachers, and school staff. While the school schedule didn’t provide as much time as some had hoped, it allowed students to get out of the house, interact with their peers, and run around on a playground. “I’m happy because I love school,” said one 5-year-old Madison Park Academy Primary student. A teacher at the school said “COVID-19 took something from us that we’re getting back today.”

Reopening schools posed all kinds of new problems, from safety protocols to vaccine mandates and distance learning

Misty Cross interrupted board members as they began 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

But just because local schools were starting to reopen didn’t mean students were rushing to come back to classrooms. Oakland Unity High School, a small charter school in East Oakland, was one of the first high schools to reopen locally. But school leaders soon realized it would take more than simply opening the doors to get students back into the classroom.

By August, Oakland Unified was one of the first school districts in the Bay Area to return to school—this time for a full school day, for five days a week. While many parents and families were nervous about safety measures and whether kids could keep their masks on, the nerves faded once they saw their children ecstatic to be back in school.

At the first OUSD board meeting of the academic year (and the first in-person meeting since March 2020), school board members faced heckling and disruptions from community members demanding that the district increase testing, provide adequate ventilation, and ensure that students are safe. The first week of school saw more than 100 COVID cases among students and staff. Experts attributed these cases mainly to community spread, but that didn’t ease the concerns of some parents, teachers, and others. 

In early September, as youth vaccination rates in Alameda County showed great disparities among students by race, the school board began to consider a mandate for students. While much of the board agreed with the idea, some members worried that such a requirement could disproportionately harm Black and brown students, who had some of the lowest vaccination rates. Nevertheless, the board voted later that month to enact the mandate. In October, the school board decided any students who didn’t get vaccinated or receive an exemption would not be allowed to continue attending in-person classes after January 31. 

Hundreds of families who were still uncomfortable with returning to in-person learning this year enrolled in OUSD’s Sojourner Truth Independent Study program. Unfortunately, this overwhelmed the school that previously enrolled fewer than 200 students. State law required that independent study programs undergo changes to accommodate those families, and what was once a program offering flexible, in-person schedules to mainly high schoolers became a virtual academy for more than 1,000, leaving Sojourner Truth’s original families with a dilemma of whether to stay or transfer. “Now it’s basically regular school but online. It’s not independent study anymore,” said one mom whose son was enrolled in the Sojourner Truth program prior to the pandemic.

That wasn’t all that happened in 2021. Here are three stories that could have significant impacts on the Oakland education scene in 2022.

Hundreds of Oakland Tech students walked out of class on Friday to call attention to sexual assaults on campus and school leaders' lack of response.
Hundreds of Oakland Technical High School students walked out of class in November to call attention to sexual assaults on campus and school leaders’ lack of response. Credit: Amir Aziz

In a bombshell announcement, Mills College president wrote in March that the 169-year-old women’s college would stop granting degrees and enrolling undergraduates, and would transition to becoming the Mills Institute. The college had been dealing with declining enrollment and shaky finances for years. Several months later, the school announced it would be merged with Northeastern University, a Boston-based college, which brought mixed reactions from Mills students and alumni.

In November, hundreds of Oakland Technical High School students walked out of their classes and down Broadway, marching to OUSD’s central office in downtown Oakland, protesting sexual assualts and misconduct in their school, and demanding that the district address their concerns. Students laid out five demands, which district leaders have said they’re making progress on. The protest was part of a wave of similar actions by students in San Francisco and other Bay Area cities.

And finally, OUSD’s budget problems continued to threaten the district’s education mission. While more than $250 million in COVID relief funding staved off some budget cuts in 2021, the district is still facing a shortfall of more than $40 million in the 2022-2023 school year, which the school board must address in the coming months. Alameda County superintendent L.K. Monroe sent a letter to OUSD last month warning that she will escalate her oversight of the district if the board does not take significant critical steps to address its deficit, including possibly consolidating schools. Some Oakland community groups and elected officials are pushing back against Monroe and protested in December against what they view as external meddling in OUSD’s education affairs.

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.