Newsletter for Jan. 10, 2021: Invite to first monthly forum and board update

I am excited to be the new Oakland Unified School Board Director for District 1.

I want to start by inviting you to an info session I am hosting with the district, teachers, families and staff on Planning for a Safe Return to Schools, which will be on Zoom on Thursday, January 21 at 5:30 pm. You can RSVP at this link and then we will send you the Zoom link closer to the date.

This is the first in a series of forums I plan to host on a monthly basis on the issues confronting the district. I will share my thoughts on reopening schools further down, but first want to give a few updates:

I was sworn in last Monday, and elected to be Vice President of the Board. I am grateful to my colleagues for trusting me with this role, and look forward to working with Board President Shanthi Gonzales to set the agendas for Board meetings.

The support of central staff, and current and former board members, in getting me up to speed on many issues has made this a smooth transition, in marked contrast to the failed attempts in Washington, DC, to subvert democracy this week. I am learning as fast as I can about many topics!

Here are some of the issues we will be discussing at the board in the next few weeks:

  • Our budget for the 2021-22 school year. Thanks to the federal stimulus and Gov. Newsom’s proposals, there are significant one-time funds for schools, but the long-term picture for education is still bad because the Schools and Communities First measure did not pass, and California chronically underfunds special education in particular as well as education as a whole.

  • The good financial news is that OUSD has been recognized by the county and state for much better fiscal management than in the past, thanks to our new Chief Business Officer Lisa Grant-Dawson, new software and new training for staff.

  • There will be more discussion of changes to our enrollment system. The deadline for priority enrollment for the 2021-22 school year is Feb. 5—explore OUSD schools on our website.

  • We will be voting on a long-term lease for two vacant sites in East Oakland, the former Tilden Child Development Center and Shands Adult School where I taught for several years, both to be developed as affordable housing.

  • We will be deciding on a plan for moving Central Office staff out of 1000 Broadway, where our lease expires in August of 2022, to other vacant space owned by the district: either existing space, or constructing a new building on the Cole site in West Oakland.

  • In accordance with the George Floyd Resolution, OUSD has dissolved its police department. As part of its new safety plan, the district has kept its many civilian School Safety Officers who are now part of the Community Schools Student Services Division. Congrats to Jacqueline Simon, an SSO at Frick United Academy, who was honored as one of California’s Classified Employees of the Year!

I also want to congratulate Ms. Phoebe Diamond, 3rd grade teacher at Chabot, who was named one of the 2020 OUSD Teachers of the Year. Watching the video about her is so inspiring!

And, I am inspired by teachers and principals who are organizing another Stimulus Pledge to support struggling families in Oakland, many of whom are essential workers who don’t get a stimulus check because of their immigration status. I have donated part of my check at StimulusPledge.org.

 

My Latest Thoughts on Reopening Schools

Everyone agrees that we should reopen classrooms as soon as it is safe—the disagreement is on the meaning of ‘safe.’ So rather than the back and forth on social media that boils down to ‘it is safe,' vs. ‘no it's not,' I want to focus on how to do it safely.

We are in a contradictory moment where infection rates are surging, yet the vaccine is bringing hope. We need to be patient and listen to each other, even when we disagree.

It’s crucial to recognize that people in different parts of Oakland have been impacted very differently by the virus: infections are much higher in flatlands neighborhoods with lots of essential workers, compared to in the hills where more people can work from home. This results in different feelings of safety about returning to schools, yet students at all of our schools come from a variety of neighborhoods, so we need to work together as a community in this process.

Obviously, we will need to reopen schools in partnership with teachers, other school site staff, and families, not in spite of them. It will be self-defeating if we reopen schools only to have outbreaks that close them again, or if many families decline to return because of fear of infection.

Amongst a lot of bad news, the good news is that the federal relief bill provides significant funding for Oakland Unified, and Gov. Newsom is also proposing additional funding to assist districts with reopening, though there are a lot of strings attached. 

I believe that we should work with other agencies to make sure three key pieces are in place before we reopen, starting part-time with the youngest ages (TK-2nd grade) and the most vulnerable populations (students with special needs, unhoused students, and students who are having the most trouble accessing distance learning):

  1. Vaccinating all adults who will be at school,

  2. Ensuring sufficient ventilation to prevent spread of the virus, as well as masking and sufficient distance,

  3. Making testing available for teachers and students on a consistent regular basis.

Currently, science shows that the virus has been unlikely to spread between young children or from children to adults. Given that, there are three primary issues that could slow down reopening:

  1. We can't reopen when cases are so prevalent in Oakland (currently 48 per 100K per day in Alameda County, and significantly higher in Oakland), so we need to wait until it drops to a much safer level.

  2. Scientists need to verify that vaccinated adults are very unlikely to carry and spread the disease.

  3. We need to see the impact of the new British variant of the virus on infection rates. On Monday, Britain closed schools until at least mid-February, as rates reached 86 per 100K per day.

I also believe we need to use some of the COVID relief funding to provide summer classes for all students who need support to make up what they missed this year.

The Governor's New Year’s Eve proposal to provide extra funding to districts to accelerate reopening was a step forward, but there are many controversial aspects to the plan that will hopefully be worked out as the legislature considers it. 

Our Superintendent was a signatory to an excellent letter pointing out how the proposal could end up supporting rural and suburban districts but leaving districts like Oakland behind. I hope the Governor addresses all of her concerns.

OUSD is moving forward with small-group instruction at a small number of sites, since it is much easier to do something right on a small scale before trying it at a larger scale. The lessons learned from this project will be instrumental in planning reopening district-wide.

As we greet the new year, we can be confident that classrooms will reopen sometime in 2021, so it is not so much a question of will we do it but how we can do it safely as soon as possible, since everyone agrees that in-person instruction is best for kids.

At the same time, we need to be realistic that we will not be back to normal in all grades for a long time, since the virus has given us a lot of difficult surprises so far, vaccines will not be approved for children until much later this year, and teenagers are known to spread the disease at similar rates as adults.

Thank you for reading this. I can’t promise to write as much every month, but I will do my best to provide updates once or twice a month by email. You can subscribe to these messages at this link.


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  • Sam Davis