Oakland parents, students protest for in-person learning; union wants to reimagine return to class

Oakland students and their parents held a socially-distanced "Zoom-In" protest outside of Oakland Tech High School Friday morning, to voice their support for a plan to reopen schools.

All of Oakland Unified School District's 36,000 students have been doing distance-learning instruction since March. 

"Schools around the world have been open. Schools in the Bay Area are open. The science is completely clear - there's no reason to wait," said Oakland Unified School District alum and parent Lauren Hunt. 

Another parent who didn't want to give her name said her 8th-grade son has become lethargic, disinterested in school and depressed with distance-learning this year.

"My son isn't here because we can't get him out of this room," she said. She also has a daughter in 5th grade.

"My daughter, her eyes hurt from staring at a screen all day. She asks me every day when she can go back to school," she said.

"It's a bit hard to learn," her daughter said, "You're just on a screen for hours at your house, doing nothing. It's very boring. It's hard to learn and ask the teacher for help."

Parents at the protest expressed their frustration with what they said is a lack of urgency and transparency with the on-going negotiations between the Oakland Education Association and the district. They are part of the parent-led advocacy group, OUSD Parents for Transparency and Safe Reopening, are also planning a rally on Sunday at noon at Lake Merritt.

"We don't have a date [to return] yet," said OUSD spokesperson John Sasaki. "People may feel like that means maybe there's no plan in place, but that's not the case."

Sasaki said the district and the union continue to work on a labor agreement to bring some students back to class for part-time, in-person instruction.

"We are working towards getting to a point where we can open at least, for our TK to 2nd, on a part-time basis, where some kids are coming in one day other groups another day," Sasaki said.

The Centers for Disease Control, the American Academy of Pediatrics,  the Journal of American Medicine,  and studies from several university medical schools, including the University of Minnesota, Duke University, Tulane University, University of North Carolina, Yale University, have all concluded that schools can reopen safely with universal mask-wearing and social distancing to prevent COVID outbreaks.

"The science is clear. Students should be back in school. School is the best place for them to learn," Hunt said. "It's time to go back."

But not everyone is ready to return to class. 

Chaz Garcia, vice president and lead negotiator with the Oakland Education Association, said communities in Oakland have been hit hard by the virus. Some educators are still fearful of returning to campuses.

"Members want to be in person," said Garcia. "There is anxiety around day-to-day activities because of COVID. We have members who have lost family because of COVID."

Garcia said some of the sticking points in the negotiations with OUSD include ventilation, personal protective equipment and the number of children in a classroom.

In some of Oakland's low-income neighborhoods, the union is asking for no more than 10 people in a class, including the teacher. Garcia said the union wants teachers to be prioritized for vaccinations, but will not require them to reopen.

"If things keep progressing the way they are, with COVID rates, I am hopeful we will have some in-person learning before the end of the school year," Garcia said.

Whether OUSD will be able to offer full-time, in-person instruction for the start of the 2021-2022 academic year is not clear.

All of the groups involved said there are many variables to consider.

"We certainly hope that we're in a position that we're going to be able to open full-time," said Sasaki. "But so much is up in the air."

Right now, California Department of Public Health guidelines require between four- to six- feet of distance between students indoors. That guidance places space and staff limitations on the largest public school districts. It is unclear whether the guidance would change if COVID cases declined, county and state-wide.

Parents said part of the solution should include moving some classes outdoors and that planning for this possibility in the fall should start now.

"We need to come up with creative solutions," Hunt said, "We live in this beautiful California world where students can learn outside the vast majority of the year."

Garcia, with the Oakland Education Association, agreed the district needs to start thinking about utilizing more of its space.

"We have to make sure we don't close any more schools," she said. "If we were to try to return to how schools were before COVID, kids were stuffed in, you could barely walk around the room. That's not the way we can hold classrooms anymore. So we need to think about re-imagining how we do that, and that's where our focus needs to go."

When asked what Garcia meant by reimagining school, and whether it means making smaller class-sizes permanent, or keeping distance learning as an option indefinitely, Garcia said she's not sure what the future will hold.

"Reimagining means talking about all of those things," she said. "It comes down to where are we as a community in the fall. We have to be prepared for anything."