Back to School in Oakland: Perspectives from a Kindergarten, 3rd Grade Teacher, and Librarian

A collage image of three Oakland teachers in their classrooms or outside
OUSD teachers.

This article is part three of a three-part series sharing OUSD administrator and teacher perspectives to the start of in-person learning, including many lessons learned during 18 months of distance learning during COVID. (Read parts one and two).

As the pandemic started to ramp up early in 2020, teachers in many places were remanded to a virtual environment. In OUSD, the pivot from in-person to online happened mid-March. And, although early on, many students were happy to not have to go to school anymore, that momentary joy wore off as the end of the 2019-2020 school year morphed into summer school and nearly the entire 2020-2021 school year. Schools finally re-opened for the last few weeks of the Spring 2021 semester, and subsequently for summer school. This fall, OUSD schools re-opened in full swing. Oakland Voices chatted with OUSD educators on what they have seen since the return of in-person learning, and what they learned during distance learning.

Sara Shepich, Kindergarten Teacher at Global Family Elementary Dual Immersion in Fruitvale

Sara Shepich has been teaching in Oakland for 18 years and is a dual language Spanish and English immersion teacher. 

Most students are super happy to be in school, which I feel was always true, but more so now.

Literally, every day, students tell me they love school. Randomly and unprompted. 

However, there are a few who have never been in a school setting before and have struggled to acclimate and feel comfortable. But we’re working on it!

Everyone has been very supportive and grateful to be back in person. My partner teacher and I are in constant contact with all of our families to ensure proper mask wearing, procedures, and cleanliness. No one wants to go back to crisis distance learning, so we’re all doing everything we can to stay safe and healthy. 

I think what has changed the most is mask wearing and our perceptions of what is acceptable. For kindergarten, masks are interesting because while kids have become accustomed to wearing them, they add an extra layer of challenge if a student is still developing speech—which most are at this developmental stage. Developing language—or two and three languages, for my students, humans depend on seeing the mouth shapes and movements, which isn’t possible with masks on. So, we’re doing the best we can with that. 

Another big change has been our perceptions of what is acceptable, mostly with regard to behavior and practices. For kindergarteners, something like sword fighting with food on their forks would have been considered developmentally appropriate—although maybe still gross—pre-pandemic. Now it’s simply unacceptable. Or even eating lunch together at the same table side by side: many students haven’t mastered the art of not talking with food in their mouths. While my site argued for and won all meals to be eaten outdoors, students are still not distanced at tables outside. I still worry transmission will happen at lunch. 

While this socialization work is a very big part of kindergarten, there is still huge academic pressure. The expectation by the end of the year is that students are decoding, sounding out, recognizing sight words, and reading at a level 4. Some of our students, for varied reasons, have never been exposed to books before, or held a pencil, or been read to. So working on that balance of time to develop social skills and developing academic skills is a lot. 

The school board just voted this past week to continue closing schools, schools which serve Oakland’s Black and Brown students. They also voted to continue teacher consolidations to fill vacancies that wouldn’t exist if they had started the year with a better plan. They claim the problem is that there’s no one to hire, but leadership continues to ignore the idea of hiring bonuses for teachers and support staff—despite having an influx of money from the state. The decisions that are being made in the name of “fiscal financial health” are bad decisions for students. Closing schools and consolidating teachers and classrooms—in the midst of a pandemic—is not putting students first and has, in fact, been proven not to save money. It’s only pushing the possibility of “every student thriving” further away, actively causing harm to students.

I wonder what this district would look like if decisions were made in support of students, and not in support of money. 

Maggie Rogers,Librarian at Montera Middle School

A woman wearing glasses and a mask stands inside a school library.
Maggie Rogers in the school library.

Maggie Rogers has sixe years of professional library experience and 10 years of volunteer experience 

Students are so excited! And so happy to be back with the books. Very respectful and curious too. 

I’ve completely forgotten about the website and Bitmoji rooms that I worked on during the pandemic. They were a lot of fun to make and have some really useful information attached to them. I need to make a regular spot in my daily or weekly schedule to update the website and then set aside some blocks of time to make new Bitmoji rooms. I think these are fun and useful even without being in remote learning. 

Perhaps the biggest challenge is similar to what I think most educators are also facing—how safe do I feel in a shared space, and how can I make the environment as safe as possible for all my patrons. 

The majority of Montera students have returned to school. Students don’t have the choice to go back and forth between remote and in person, so most have returned. I have not heard from any students or families who chose the remote option, which is operated by a different OUSD school.

In the library, it feels about the same as before. I also see the students a lot in the hallways during passing period. I also don’t see too much change there. 

If students appear distracted, I just try focus on them individually. Make eye contact. Ask them to remind me of their name. Names are really important to me because I think every student wants to be noticed and remembered. That means I have to try to remember around 650 names. I obviously don’t remember all of them, but I do try. Focusing them on a one-to-one, positive, personal exchange helps keep them on task.

My primary goal in the library is to provide a safe and welcoming place for them to read, relax, and socialize. I have always tried to keep that in mind, whether they are in the library by choice—before or after school or at lunchtime—or because they are on a class visit. I suppose the pandemic has me trying extra hard to be pleasant and understanding. So far, the students have all been kind, respectful, and generally attentive.

I would say that the students are pretty excited to be back at school but are still getting used to it. Maybe some of the excitement-related behavior that we would normally see in the Spring is showing up a bit early. Kids like to test the boundaries, especially middle schoolers. I’d say we are seeing some of that a bit earlier than usual.

Advice to the district would be to please get the supply chain back in order. We need working photocopiers, barcodes, supplies. There appears to be quite a backlog in the system.

Pamela Long,3rd grade teacher at International Community School

A woman wearing a striped poncho smiles outside
Pamela Long.

Pamela Long has taught for 28 years, with 13 of those years at International Community School in Oakland

Kids are so happy; when it’s time to write in their journals, they all wanna say, “I love being in school, I’m happy because I’m in school,” so that’s super cute.  What can be hard for some kids is to have the masks on all day.

And parents are happy to have the kids back in school. It can be hard to leave their kids; they used to be able to come on campus. The parents are not allowed to come on campus now, so they have to leave their kids at the gate, which might be traumatizing for some families, considering that some children may have been taken from their families at the border and maybe it might be emotional, though no has said anything, but they’re happy to have their kids back in school. They used to be able to come into the classroom, help out in the morning.

Now we have to wear masks so it’s harder to hear each other; that’s the biggest impediment. Before, we could intermingle with other classes, now we have to keep the kids in bubbles, which is a little harder.  

We have so many kids extremely below grade level, a year and three months behind.  Some kids had support at home, and other kids didn’t, so those kids who didn’t have support fell further behind.

One other thing is that a lot of the time, if a kid has a cough or sneeze, in the past, it was no big deal, but now if there’s a cough or a sneeze, we have to send them to the office, their parents have to pick them up, they have to get COVID tested, they have to miss a bunch of days of school, so that’s a lot more complicated, until they have a negative test.  

It’s a huge inconvenience for the parents but at least it’s less of an inconvenience than having their kids home every day for a whole year. We have a test site at our school Wednesdays and Fridays, but they take them other places, too, maybe La Clinica, maybe the Native American Health Center  I hate for the parents to have to leave their jobs, because it’s not like many of them of the freedom of saying “I’ll be back later.” Many of them have no job security, so having to leave in the middle of the day is not a good thing for them. A lot of them may not have jobs.

A benefit of having been on Zoom is that the kids are more tech savvy, most have computers at home now, Chromebooks from the district. Sometimes they lose their chargers, but otherwise, most kids know how to do things online that maybe they didn’t know how to do before.

One concern about having returned to in-class instruction is that it’s very hard to get a sub. If I get sick, I wouldn’t be able to find a sub. There’s a huge shortage of teaching staff and subs throughout the entire district, so that’s a big concern, and I would hate to have to put that on anyone else.

A new concern is that one of the students is being kind of ostracized; so the kids will say something like, “Your mom has COVID,” as kind of a way of putting someone down or spreading rumors, so you know, that’s not nice. We have to clamp that one down.

Some advice to the district would include maybe they can start offering a bonus to people who take jobs because we need a lot more people in the district to work with us. Also, maybe for administrators to jump in and take some of those teaching positions. The most important part of the system is teachers, so if there are schools without teachers, some of these administrators could actually help out.

We have to make it joyous; I know that we can get stressed with the testing and everything, but we have to find a way to make it fun. I love my school, coworkers, students and their families. Everything about it. 

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.”

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