Oakland: Joy and Terror on the First Day Back at School

Students return to school in Oakland Unified School District in California amid inadequate safety precautions. Photo: NBC Bay Area

A letter from a teacher

I am a teacher at an elementary school in East Oakland, California. East Oakland may only be 10 minutes from downtown, but it is like traveling through a vortex – from clean streets to smoldering piles of garbage, from new developments to homeless encampments. Almost all of the students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, and our school is strapped for funds. How can we accept these conditions in a country that claims to be the richest and most powerful nation in the world?

The school I work at and love was experiencing hardship long before the pandemic. We almost never had soap or paper towels in classrooms or bathrooms. Teachers and staff would purchase them, along with basic classroom supplies for students. When Covid struck, East Oakland felt its ferocious impacts. In March 2020, I went from an 8-hour work day as a teacher, to a 12-hour work day as both an educator and a social worker. My co-workers and I helped families file for unemployment, set up food deliveries to homes, and collect funds in the community for undocumented immigrants who did not receive government stipends. Most of our students did not have computers or internet at home. All of the school’s computers were distributed to students. We spent hours on the phone helping families that cannot yet read sign into computers they did not know how to use. We had internet installed in homes, and delivered WiFi hot spots. We supported families and kids as they started to get sick, and as their loved ones began to die. Distance learning did not cause these inequities, it just exposed them.

East Oakland has a vaccination rate of 56.2%. This statistic, compounded with the fact that children under twelve cannot yet be vaccinated, left my elementary school in a state of uncertainty at the start of this unprecedented school year. Since the school year began, basic necessities like soap and paper towels have finally been supplied, but our community still needs much more. The district armed each classroom with air filters, masks, hand sanitizer, instructions to keep windows open (or air conditioning on if windows are sealed shut), and plexiglass screens. Because of the ever-changing best practices, the screens were later removed because the updated science claimed that plexiglass actually blocks air ventilation. At the start of the summer, the government declared that schools would reopen in person in the fall. In July, the state government passed law SB-130, which severely limited distance learning options across the state. When the Delta variant struck, the state of California made it clear that schools would re-open no matter the consequences. According to the bosses and the government, kids need to be back in school, despite unsafe conditions, so that their parents can be forced back to their jobs and the economy can re-open.

In the days preceding Oakland’s first day of school on August 9, teachers, staff, and families were deeply concerned at my site. A new initiative from the Biden administration would provide free breakfast to all students, but district officials determined that breakfast would be eaten inside classrooms. This meant all 29 of my unvaccinated students would take off their masks to eat together in a small room. In addition, we were told that lunch would take place in the cafeteria, meaning hundreds of children, maskless and eating together, in a room without air purifiers or ventilation. We were also told that kids did not need to wear masks outside, and that daily symptom checks would no longer be required. The district would be providing free testing at only 10 sites, open from 8-4. None of these locations are near my school, which is one of the highest-needs communities in the city. Our staff was outraged and scared. Teachers and classified staff wrote a collective letter to our principal, and some of our demands, including eating outside, and maintaining mask-wearing both inside and outside the classroom, were met before school started.

And what has been the role of our unions, the Oakland Education Association (OEA) and the California Teachers Association (CTA)? Our union leadership negotiated a sparse 6-page agreement with many concessions. This happened even though our district had just received $300 million of additional funding for Covid relief. There is no accountability for spending all the money, and no mandated weekly Covid testing, except for unvaccinated staff. No procedures were established for breakfast and lunch; as a result, at some schools, hundreds of maskless students sit together and eat in unventilated cafeterias. There are no clear procedures around how to respond if there is a Covid case or exposure, nor is there information on how a teacher should support students academically who must stay home when they’re sick or exposed. There are no procedures in place for what to do if a classroom or school must be closed. Bargaining was held behind closed doors, communication from union officials has been minimal, and the perspectives of teachers and families have been ignored. The agreement was intended to get us back to work, not to keep students and staff safe; I voted against it.

This situation is not unique to Oakland or even to California; this has been the response of union officials all across the country. Instead of demanding safe conditions, including smaller class sizes, regular weekly testing, resources for outdoor education and eating, and Covid safety and vaccine education at all schools, union officials have completely capitulated.

On the first day of school, my students were filled with both joy and terror. Friends and family have asked me the same question: are the kids keeping their masks on? Absolutely. They are responsible with their masks, because they are afraid. They have seen how this virus has physically, financially, academically and emotionally left long-term impacts on their lives and their families. Yet they are also so excited to be back! Teachers often call the first few weeks of school the honeymoon period, but these first two weeks have felt as if I brought the kids to Disneyland. My students are so eager to learn, thrilled to play with others, and simultaneously so scared of illness, or worse, returning to the isolated world of distance learning. That fear has led a few students to hide symptoms; only by checking in with students one-on-one have I learned that kids are coughing in the bathroom to make sure that they are not heard and sent home. On the first day of school, a sick child sat at a table of six students. After four days, only one child remained at that table. Each class has several students absent each day. Without a negative Covid test, students with symptoms must stay home for 10 days, while students exposed are home for 7.

Affluent schools in Oakland have powerful Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs), that are able to raise funds and put communal pressure on the district to get extra resources. In privileged schools, families are advocating for testing every week. People in those communities have not only money, but time to bring children to a testing site in an inconvenient location on a weekly basis. More than 60 schools in Oakland have cases of Covid, and that is with minimal or no testing at most sites. Classrooms are being shut down. Yet in my school, not a single case of Covid has been found. This is not some great miracle, but instead it is the consequence of no testing.

We all want to be back in school, myself included. But we should demand to do it in a way that is as safe as possible for students and staff, and this society certainly has the wealth and resources to make that happen. All schools in Oakland deserve a free PCR testing site on each campus from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. to accommodate working people. The district must make weekly testing mandatory. All schools in Oakland should have tents in the yard for outdoor dining to protect children from the elements. The district must develop a plan for outdoor eating for the upcoming fire and rainy seasons. We need heat lamps for the winter. We need to develop adult education resources on Covid and about vaccination, so that when the vaccine is finally made available to children under 12, students are vaccinated as quickly as possible. A distance learning option must be available at all schools, so that students do not lose their spot at their community school and be forced to the distance learning hub at another campus. Schools need public health workers to track cases and exposures on campuses. The OUSD dashboard must be updated daily, not once a week.

With an inadequate MOU, and little support from district or union officials, teachers, staff, families and community members are taking responsibility for our own safety. Meetings are being held at sites, and schools are getting together on zoom across the district. We have met to identify shared concerns and to problem-solve community solutions. We have posted and shared information. Next week we will hold more community meetings, rally people to the school board, and hit the streets in protest! Our safety depends on us.


An Oakland Elementary School Teacher