My thoughts on the school year during COVID-19

Every student needs attention and support to succeed during this pandemic. To learn, students need sustained time engaging with learning every day Monday through Friday. How can this happen next school year while the pandemic continues?

There is some good news and a lot of bad news about the coming school year. The good news is that there is evidence that in-person schooling can be done safely if precautions are observed. At child care centers across the U.S. that cared for tens of thousands of children using social distancing and masks, no site ever had more than one coronavirus case.

Okay, now for the bad news:

  • Infections are resurging across the U.S., including California and Alameda County. This is likely to be worse in a month when school starts.

  • There are several thousand students in Oakland Unified who cannot do distance learning, such as homeless students, newcomers to the US, students with disabilities, and other vulnerable groups. These students will need to be prioritized for any in-person instruction.

  • Many families, with good reason to be very cautious about infection, will choose to shelter in place and only do distance learning.

  • Even if students from less vulnerable populations are able and willing to go to classes in-person on a rotating basis for some part of the school year, we need to prepare for the reality that most students on most days will be learning online.


So far, the focus has been on figuring out how students could rotate into classroom instruction this fall. Oakland Unified has formed several committees with over 80 parents, school staff, and district staff to begin this difficult planning work for schools. There was a report-back from these groups on Thursday evening, July 2, and tentative plans will be announced on July 10th. 

It’s true that in-classroom learning is priceless, and should be done as much as possible to the degree that it can be done safely.

But given the reality that it will be limited, there has been way too little discussion about how to transform distance learning to make it successful next year, or at least adequate. It did not go well for most students last spring, and for many students, it wasn’t working at all. 

It is incredibly hard for working parents that schools are not going to open back up full-time in the fall, and this fact will slow the economic recovery that our community needs. Yet if anything has become clear in the past month, it’s that reopening too fast just prolongs and worsens the epidemic, delaying real recovery rather than hastening it.

Despite all the hype for educational technology, what we all learned last spring was that online learning is actually less efficient than in-person classroom learning. It’s harder to hold students to a schedule, it’s harder to hold their attention to a lecture - to be successful, distance learning requires a lot of checking in and support. Many students just didn’t log on at all, and tracking down and engaging those students can be very labor-intensive.

So we are going to have to approach distance learning in a radically different way this fall, with more one-on-one and small group instruction online, more small study groups that meet virtually, and more ways for family members and volunteers to plug in to support student learning.

All families in Oakland with any capacity to help need to be part of this effort. This includes both asking our schools and district to be proactive, and volunteering our own time as much as we possibly can.

Families are going to need to group up in ‘bubbles’ or ‘pods’ so that some adults can continue to work while others can support students during distance learning. Like everything during this pandemic, this will create equity issues, and school communities can play a part in coordinating to make sure that all students who need a ‘pod’ can find one that will support them.

I know many families feel stretched to the breaking-point already. The failure in leadership from government is not our fault - yet those of us with any degree of privilege need to not only march in the streets, we also need to show up for students, who are mostly kids of color, by supporting their learning, volunteering and advocating on their behalf to prevent them losing a whole year of priceless education.

The first step is making sure that all families have the technology and support they need to log on. This means distributing Chromebooks and internet hotspots to families, and providing train-the-trainer workshops for families in multiple languages on how to use this hardware as well as the most common distance learning platforms like Google Classroom and Zoom. 

The second piece is regular and dependable communication from schools to families, so everyone knows where to look to find out what their students should be doing. In talking to other students and families, I have heard that multiple channels and repeated messages are the best practice: on the website, via email and text. Broadcasting content on KDOL, and recording lessons to Youtube so they can be watched later, are also great ideas.

Thirdly, there need to be clear expectations at every level for how often and in what ways teachers will engage with students, how other school staff will support them, and what are the expectations for student engagement with learning. Like all of the plans, this will need to be negotiated with the labor unions that represent teachers and classified workers. Teaching during this crisis is very demanding work and we need to make sure that it is sustainable. There is a balance between having high standards and not burning people out.

Social-emotional support for students and staff will be key. The most important life lesson that students will learn this year is how their community pulls together and supports each other in a crisis. We need systems for tracking and supporting students so that nobody falls through the cracks, and counseling for students who are struggling emotionally during this crisis.

All of this will take a serious infusion of resources. There is no way teachers can both teach, run small study groups, and track student engagement and needs for greater instructional and emotional support. 

We need to insist that OUSD spend the coronavirus relief funds from the state and federal government, which amount to tens of millions of dollars, on supporting schools with students with the greatest needs. We also need to insist that Sacramento and Washington (once a new administration is in place in January) support these efforts with additional funding. Imagine if hundreds of online classroom aides were hired with these funds to support our students with their distance learning.

While we fight for that funding, family volunteers and community groups will be key partners in supporting students. Students need to be supported in culturally relevant ways to be active learners every day. At every school, some students will have the family support to engage daily, while others will need persistent coaching and encouragement to take part. There will need to be a tiered approach to ‘case-manage’ students. This past spring, teachers said some students just didn’t participate. That can’t be acceptable - we need volunteers and staff who can follow up every day with family members when a student doesn’t log on.

All of these steps are crucial because the pandemic is having a terrible impact widening the educational disparities created by systemic racism and economic deprivation. That makes it so difficult to face the need for a focus on distance learning - yet the health impacts of bringing students back prematurely will also hit communities of color worse.

To paraphrase what Winston Churchill said about democracy - distance learning is a very inefficient option in this moment, but it just happens to be less bad than all the other options we have.

We all completely reorganized our lives to stop the virus this past spring. This summer, people poured into the streets to protest systemic racism and reimagine policing. We need to bring this same energy and flexibility to thinking about education in the fall, or our young people will suffer the consequences.

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