students in classroom
Students work on an arts and crafts project on the first day of in-person learning at Glenview Elementary School. Credit: Oakland Unified School District

Update: On Friday, March 18, Oakland Unified School District officials announced that wearing a mask would be optional for students and staff outdoors on school campuses beginning March 21.

Despite the easing of state and county masking requirements for schools, Oakland Unified School District will continue to require that students and staff wear masks both indoors and outdoors for at least two more weeks.

At that time, district leaders will re-evaluate the outdoor mask mandate. The indoor mandate will remain in place at least until April 15, said Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell at Wednesday’s school board meeting. 

The Alameda County Public Health Department released updated guidance for masking at schools last week, days after the California Department of Public Health announced the statewide mask mandate for schools would be ending after March 11. Face coverings are still strongly recommended in schools and other indoor settings. Most other Bay Area school districts, including Berkeley and San Francisco, are dropping their mandates next week. 

“First, we are concerned about a potential post-spring break surge. Second, some individuals on our campuses will continue to need to mask, such as individuals who are symptomatic or unvaccinated and exposed,” Johnson-Trammell said. “We must continue to move cautiously but optimistically back to normalcy, in partnership with local public health agencies, labor partners, and families.”

District leaders will meet with labor unions and school sites regarding the outdoor mask policy before announcing in two weeks whether there will be changes. Last week, OUSD had 33 COVID cases on its campuses among students, and five cases among staff. Cases have come down each week since spiking during the first week of school in January, amidst the omicron wave. At that time, there were 843 student cases and 188 staff cases, by far the highest number all school year. 

In explaining the extended mandate, Johnson-Trammell pointed to disparities in student vaccination rates across the city. While 74% of OUSD students 12 and older are fully vaccinated, rates across school board districts range from less than 52% in West Oakland to 86% in North Oakland. Rates also vary across racial groups: Less than 42% of Black, Native American, and Pacific Islander students are fully vaccinated, while other groups are approaching 80% or higher. 

Some school board and community members questioned why OUSD is implementing stricter standards than state and local health officials.

“We should not be out of alignment with what the county or the state are saying in terms of health, safety, and science. We’re not experts in those things,” said Director Mike Hutchinson, who represents District 5. 

Hutchinson has repeatedly called on the board to resume in-person meetings to demonstrate that schools are safe and give community members more direct access to meetings, which have been exclusively held over Zoom since January. 

Budget improving but has a long way to go, according to the district

Wednesday’s meeting also included a discussion about the district’s latest budget projections. In January, the board voted to make about $40 million in cuts, which along with other factors, has resulted in projected surpluses of $3.9 million and $8.9 million in unrestricted funding over the next two years, said Lisa Grant-Dawson, OUSD’s chief business officer. 

“We are seeing improvements in our overall financial picture, which is good.” However, she added, “these numbers, in order to absorb more expenses, have to be higher.”

Grant-Dawson urged board members to remain financially prudent, and added that there are many moving parts to the budget they should keep in mind: Planned staff raises will increase annual spending by millions, the $283 million in COVID-relief funding that has provided the district with a cushion will run out by 2024, and pending legislation could impact the way school districts receive money from the state. 

In a letter to the OUSD community on Wednesday, Grant-Dawson said that a 1% raise across the district would cost about $4.4 million annually, and a 3% raise would cost $13.2 million. Right now, OUSD’s monthly payroll expenses are $45 million.

“If we’re going to bring Oakland salaries to be more aligned with neighboring districts, we have to keep on doing this work to be able to increase salaries,” said Director Sam Davis, who represents District 1. “I know it’s led to a lot of painful adjustments and closures and really difficult decisions.”

In February, the board voted to close, merge, or downsize 11 schools, which is expected to save the district between $4 million and $15 million. Those savings weren’t included in the budget update that Grant-Dawson gave Wednesday. 

The board’s budget and finance committee is meeting Thursday to dive deeper into the numbers. The meeting will be held over Zoom at 6 p.m. 

While the projected surplus gives OUSD a bit of breathing room, said Johnson-Trammell, the district is still in a precarious position.

“We’re trying to forecast what we want in all of our schools, and what it’s going to take to be able to invest in that,” she said. “So yes, our situation has improved slightly, and we’re given a bit more time to think through how we’re going to restructure ourselves and make sure that we can afford the critical things that are really going to make a difference.”

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.