Follow-up to last week's forum: Planning for a Safe Return to Schools

Thanks to all who participated in our forum on Thursday night on planning for reopening schools. We appreciate you taking the time to be involved. There was a lot of useful information shared by medical professionals and Oakland Unified staff. If you missed it, there is a recording on my website

However, I was troubled by the many negative comments in the chat questioning teachers’ intentions. A couple of parents also reported that a teacher snapped at them in one of the breakout groups. 

Emotions are understandably running high. In this pandemic, teachers, families and school staff are all justifiably very worried, whether it is about our kids’ safety, mental health, learning loss, or all of the above. Many students are suffering from the isolation, and also many families have lost loved ones to the pandemic. In our community discussions, we need to assume positive intent if we want our dialogue to be constructive.

When we dismiss others’ concerns or belittle them as being pretexts, we are telling the other side that we don’t take them seriously, which makes them more likely to dig in. This actually slows down progress rather than speeding it up. Teachers, staff, families and students who have concerns about the return to in-person learning are not obstacles to the process—they are participants in it. The lesson I learned is that in future forums, l need to be more proactive in addressing the tone of the discussion. 

The good news is that President Biden and Governor Newsom have both made it clear that reopening schools is a priority, the vaccine is (slowly) being rolled out, and significant funding is on the way specifically to assist Oakland Unified with the reopening process. Infection rates are still very high but are finally beginning to drop.

As promised in the forum, below are some answers to some of the questions that were raised in the chat.  I hope they are helpful and look forward to being in touch.

 

  • Will schools be open again before the fall?

Oakland Unified plans to begin a phased transition to in-person learning for all students who want it once Alameda County is back in the state's orange tier. This will start with PK-2 and Special Ed classrooms, then 3rd-5th grade, and then support for grades 6 and up.  It is possible the legislature will accelerate that process.

Other large districts, like Fresno Unified, have also chosen the orange tier for reopening.

Nobody can predict exactly when we will reach the orange tier, but President Biden has declared reopening schools in his first 100 days a priority, and Governor Newsom is also trying to speed up the process. On one of my favorite podcasts, California education pundit John Fensterwald predicted that 99% of elementary schools would be open in the state by April 1st. 

There are currently over a dozen small pods in Oakland assisting unhoused and foster youth students with distance learning, and Oakland Unified plans to increase the number of pods in the coming weeks as an additional step on the path to reopening.

 

  • What supports exist for students experiencing mental health issues from the isolation of the pandemic or from losing family or friends to Covid-19?

This is a big concern, and families should not hesitate to reach out to their teachers, counselors, school social workers, principals or other staff at their school. There are many resources in the district, and many caring adults that can provide help and referrals to other services.

 

  • Why isn’t there more information available and transparency in the negotiations between Oakland Unified and the teachers’ union (OEA)?

There are many complicated rules governing bargaining between a union and an employer. We will provide updates when we can, but providing details about the content of the negotiations can sometimes slow the process down, as it can cause issues if one side disagrees with how the other side is describing that content. In a situation like this where time is of the essence, confidentiality may help speed up the negotiations. I know this is frustrating.

 

  • What are the roadblocks to reopening?

The biggest issue is the high rate of infections in California at the moment, and concern about the impact of the new variants that have been detected. This is not unique to California: schools in Britain, which had been open in the fall, are currently closed due to high infection rates. 

Another issue is the slow rollout of the vaccine—there is still no timeline from the county on vaccinations for school employees. Thirdly, there is the question of whether testing will be necessary for both students and staff. There are significant federal resources coming to California specifically to support reopening but they have not yet arrived. Additionally, the state just issued new safety guidance as of January 14th on all the issues that must be addressed in reopening plans, so this will require counties and districts to review their plans to make sure they comply. 

Finally, there is the question of reaching an agreement with the teachers’ union; however, while those negotiations proceed, Oakland Unified is also moving forward with creating additional on-site pods where students can get support with distance learning, supervised by non-teaching staff. These pods are currently prioritized for unhoused, foster youth, and special education students, but we plan to expand the eligible population as the pods grow in number.

 

  • Is the district considering outside learning as part of the reopening plan?

Yes, we are exploring this option, including creative ideas about using large canopies for outdoor classrooms, so that more students will be able to be on campus with social distancing once we reopen for hybrid learning.

 

  • What can be done about improving distance learning now?

You should definitely talk to your child’s teacher(s) about any concerns with distance learning. For my son, while it is greatly inferior to in-person learning, it has improved in the past month, which has been helpful. This is also a good discussion to have at your school’s PTA or SSC.  Academic staff at all levels of Oakland Unified are very concerned with this question, and are addressing it constantly.

 

  • What about the funding announced by Governor Newsom for reopening by Feb. 15th?

The Governor’s plan is before the legislature now and it seems clear that the timeline will be changed, because of criticisms expressed by many superintendents and legislators, as well as the continuing spike in infection rates statewide and the inadequacy of the funding compared to the requirements mandated by the plan. 

If you are someone who wants to advocate, you should know that the state legislature is going to play a key role in the coming weeks in deciding how and when schools will reopen, not only in Oakland but across California. For example, Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, who represents North Oakland, is holding a Town Hall about the COVID-19 vaccine this Friday at 1 pm, via YouTube.


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  • Sam Davis