Talk of the Town: Seven OUSD teachers give sneak peek of first week of school

An image of a diverse group of seven teachers.
Seven OUSD teachers share about distance learning and plans for new school year.

The words “distance learning” may have become part of many people’s vocabulary, but for teachers, distance learning became much more than mere jargon, but rather an integral part of the job over a weekend in March, here in the Bay Area, and way beyond, to all corners of the globe. 

While parents may have also become more intimately acquainted with Zoom and other platforms than they could have possibly envisioned prior to the COVID-19 pandemic for teachers, it became the default setting for instruction from preschool through grad school. How to teach elementary school, Ceramics, Math, Dance, or ESL (English as a Second Language) at a significant remove from students became the greatest challenge for teachers, whose skills vary from absolute beginner to expert. 

Even accounting for some students’ limitations in access to technology hardware and internet access, many struggled with not only school work, but the stresses faced by families, including food insecurity, loss of parental income, and, of course, social isolation. The end of the spring semester was an uneven, beta-version, and sudden experiment for every teacher. As the start of school approaches in the Oakland Unified School District, with the student “first day of school” scheduled for Monday, August 10th, teachers reflect on their challenges, successes, training needs, and just what the first day might look like as well as offering the district a bit of advice from the front of the classroom.

Nestor Gonzalez/11th & 12th grade Biology/Dewey Academy/30 years teaching

A man wearing a beanie stands next to a giraffe
Nestor Gonzalez.

The main challenge was getting to the students to participate; the second challenge was attempting mastery of the technology myself. In terms of feedback, I got the opposite from complaints. I had to make relationships with parents to help me get to students. “Thank you for trying to reach me, for letting me know what my child was doing, Mr. G.,” is an example of a response, after persistent communication, texting, calls and email to students and families. 

On the first day back, I will focus on revealing who I am as a human, a man, and as a teacher, and then I will ask them to do the same. I will play music the first day and week; I will weave in biology. I will ask questions, give an assignment, make connections to COVID-19, and how it affects us.

My job is to show them that I’m really cool and I can teach something that will mean something to them. If I can build relationships, if I can show them that I am someone they can trust — I have got to do that the first few days. To the district, I would say “Step up to the plate and deal with the union.”

Loraine Woodard/ 9th&10th grades ESL/Reading Teacher/Oakland International High School/20 years teaching

A woman with glasses is reading a book.
Loraine Woodard.

Because many students didn’t have technology, my job was no longer a teacher and more of a social worker by phone: checking in with students to see if they needed food, needed help in any way, needed counseling, needed money, to try to hook them up with unemployment benefits, to tell them about the rent moratorium, and where to get financial assistance.

There were students who didn’t respond; some only responded the first few weeks. By summer school, I knew a little bit better how to teach online. I was flexible; kids could join a Zoom meeting if they wanted. Most really preferred late afternoon and evening.

The training we received on developing curriculum for distance learning was most useful; they gave us an overview on best practices. It’s really different for our site, which is all English learners. At times, I feel overwhelmed with so many online tools and resources,  so we want to limit tools for our students so it is not overwhelming for them.

To begin on the first day, we will start a reading and writing unit; students are going to write what life is like for them during the pandemic, using Google or on paper, which they can photograph and send, about what they’ve been doing and how they’ve been feeling. Advice to the district is to consider not opening the schools too soon; we had a meeting with Latino parents who agreed that they were not ready.

Celetta Hunter/9th grade English/Castlemont High School/7 years teaching

An African American woman with short redish hair smiles at camera.
Celetta Hunter

The main challenge in transitioning to distance learning was getting students and parents acclimated to total online learning, accessing learning platforms, WiFi and laptops, while facing the challenges with employment and resources that COVID-19 has brought. 

Parents complained about getting different information from multiple teachers or students and parents receiving no contact at all. Parents also could not understand the way the no credit/credit policy worked and affected their student’s GPA and matriculation.

Something that worked well was having open hours throughout the day for students and parents to contact me. The training we received was not much about distance learning, but rather mostly about ELL (English Language Learners).

Going forward, training in grading, information regarding which online learning platforms will be available through the district, class scheduling, and online class management would be most useful.

First days back, I will use Moodle (a Learning Management System) and a quick iMovie, PowerPoint or Kids TikTok for presentation for introductions and an overview of the class. Also, an inquiry game using Quizlet or some online gaming system and then a little Q&A from students.

Advice to the district is to please create a comprehensive plan for teachers, students, and parents.

Pamela Long/3rd grade teacher/International Community School/27 years teaching

A woman with short hair and bright blue blouse stands in front of a school.
Pamela Long.

The initial challenge was that no one knew how to use Zoom, Google classroom, etc. I had to attend endless webinars to know how to use these platforms. Second, none of the families knew how to download Zoom or use it, much less have classes online. Many children did not know how to turn in the work that was assigned to them. I literally had to spend an hour with each family to help them get online and know how to use the platforms. Some students never received the promised [WiFi] hotspot so they never were able to use the Chromebooks loaned by our school. 

I attended many family meetings over the summer. Families were frustrated that there were no consistent schedules from many teachers or that there was only one Chromebook for multiple school age children in one home. Families felt that the time dedicated to their children was minimal.  

I was happy to support families although it was very laborious. What worked the best for me was having small group meetings throughout the day/week.I attended trainings from April throughout the summer. I watched webinars to train for using Zoom, Google Classroom, RAZ kids, Newsela, ST Math, and other apps.

I feel like I have all the trainings I need but our families need trainings to support their children. I’d love to see trainings provided by each school to support the families for whom all this tech stuff is unfamiliar and challenging! 

For the first days back, I am thinking of starting with a creed, or belief statement, that we will start with every day. My school has scheduled a 30-minute class meeting for each day of the first week. I will greet the students and have them share something they’d like me to know about themselves. After that, I will start virtual home visits. 

Advice to the district is to listen to teachers and support families!

Nick Johnson/9th-12th grade Algebra and Geometry/Rudsdale Newcomer High School/10 years teaching

A teacher sits in a chair in front of a whiteboard.
Nick Johnson.

Initially, the challenges were access to technology; a number of students didn’t have computers and/or internet at home. Zoom fatigue and a lack of human engagement were factors as well.

I like math to be a collaborative experience, to work it out with other students. Not being able to work in a physical space, I did use Zoom/breakout rooms last spring and I thought the best thing about  breakout rooms was that it gave them a chance to connect; they missed each other; they can be shy in the Zoom whole-class environment. 

About 33% of each class was in attendance. I decided to hold class at 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 or 4:00 p.m. or 9:00 p.m. During the 9:00 p.m. class, students were very chill; many of them hold jobs as essential workers during the day.

There was a lot of appreciation; teachers did a lot of food deliveries. As some students did not feel comfortable coming to the Grab & Go food distributions the district sponsored so every other week, we would drop off food.

The difference between getting exposure to distance learning apps and being ready for “primetime” is significant; I need more time to practice and also collaborative time, as so many of us found out the hard way, there were so many things we found not to work.

The first days back, we will focus on community building and icebreakers; what I do in my classroom is question circles. 

I am sympathetic to how fluid the situation is and how many parents are worried about their children returning to school, but may need to work. 

Advice to the district is to give us time to transition, even though it may take time.

Steven Reaves/9th-12th grade/Drama and Dance/Castlemont High School/20 years teaching

An African American man smiles at the camera.
Steven Reaves.

The greatest challenge was transitioning from having a place to dance and put on a show and transferring to Zoom. I had to learn new things. I had to meet with students on an individual basis, so they could sing a song or read lines they had memorized. It was challenging to make sure that students understood what to do and how to access information on Google classroom.

I was also just learning Zoom. The class was more rigorous in some ways. Students had to choose from a number of options, such as texts to read, with follow-up questions. They also had more of a variety of things to do, going over lines to memorize, and watching assigned videos on YouTube, among other tasks. Students have a chance to really choose; they have to learn to prioritize from the assignments on Google classroom. I tried to do Zoom meetings with all the kids.

The most useful training going forward will be on Zoom, creating groups and breakout rooms. I need to get the kids more acclimated to Zoom, and how to access it and understand my expectations. Day one, we will do some icebreakers, then I’ll go through the syllabus.

I had just had these wonderful professional development experiences with learning how to put together a project-based learning unit, so I would like to see more of that, and would definitely like more hands-on training for Google classroom and Zoom.

Donna Salonga/9th-12th grade Ceramics teacher/Skyline High School/4 years teaching experience

An Asian woman with short hair is holding a ceramic sculpture and smiling.
Donna Salonga.

When we switched to distance learning in mid-March, it was hard to accept   that student pieces would be left unfinished for an indefinite amount of time, especially for the 2020 graduating seniors. Students’ pieces have been sitting in the classroom since the schools were closed officially on March 16, as though abandoned. It was frustrating to completely shift from hands-on to all digital work, although it had to be done for everyone’s safety. This shift began to show the inequities in access and faculty and staff worries focused on how to provide technology. 

The complaint from my students was the same as my own. They were asking when they could finish their pieces, when they could pick up any of their pieces that were waiting to be taken out of the kilns; and there were no ceramic pieces take home to commemorate Seniors’ last semester in high school. 

Parents were unsure how to handle the situation as well. We were all trying our best to continue to go with the flow. Skyline HS was able to successfully distribute Chromebooks to a percentage of students. The most useful trainings were Google Classroom, Talking Points, and Zoom. I am awaiting updates for the school’s beginning professional development days beginning August 5th. My advice to the district is to not reopen schools until it is safe.

Author Profile

Debora Gordon is a writer, artist, educator and non-violence activist. She has been living in Oakland since 1991, moving here to become a teacher in the Oakland Unified School District. In all of these roles, Debora is interested in developing a life of the mind. “As a mere human living in these simultaneously thrilling and troubled times,” Debora says, “I try to tread lightly, live thoughtfully, teach peace, and not take myself too seriously.”


  1. Thank you so much for this inside view of how it works to teach and learn during this pandemic. Great representation across the District for high school teachers and students, this age group has not been covered much by the news. I’m so impressed with these teachers, I hope the District consistently listens and plans accordingly. Lots to be learned.

  2. Excellent perspectives and guidance from these teachers. Thank you all for the work you do.

  3. I am so very grateful for all of you. You are soldiering on this tough time. I appreciate everything you are doing. If OUSD needs volunteers for something that can be done from a distance, I am able to give some time every week.

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