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Oakland Unified To Begin School Year With Distance Learning Before Students Return To Classrooms

OAKLAND (CBS SF) -- The Oakland Unified School District announced Friday that the 2020-2021 school year would begin in one month with all students in distance learning before returning to classrooms in phases.

The district made the announcement early Friday evening as district officials outlined the plans for the new school year during a live streamed press conference. The district's plan to begin with all students in remote learning before gradually moving towards a blended mix of online classes and in-person attendance was recommended by the OUSD COVID-19 Action Team which is made up of school site staff including custodial, clerical, teachers, principals, as well as central office department leaders.

The opening phase of distance learning for all students will last up to four weeks, according to officials. During that time, the district will implement its COVID-19 safety plans, attend training in both safety and instruction in addition to orienting students and families to later phases of blended learning.

School officials said the transition into the later phases will depend on specific science, safety, student learning and support details. The district will use an equity lens for prioritizing in-person instruction for targeted students.

"This decision was not an easy one to make as there are differing needs for returning to class within our families and our staff," said OUSD spokesman John Sasaki. "Many of our families told us they don't feel comfortable with their student returning to class. Many others said they want their students back in class. Of course, there are serious concerns with COVID, there are also serious concerns with students' emotional well-being because of the social isolation under which so many of our kids have been living under and because of the lack of in-person instruction."

Oakland Unified noted that families may choose to remain in full distance learning regardless of phases being entered into by the district. In addition to their COVID-19 Action Team, the district has consulted with public health experts and been in on-going conversations with labor partners. The latest information led district leadership to determine the best course of action for all involved was to begin the school year in distance learning where students will be home, learning virtually as they did during the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year when the stay-at-home order first went into effect.

As the district introduces phases of blended learning, there will be opportunities for specific groups of students to both attend school in person and continue with some distance learning. The district is aiming for the first phase of blended learning to last up to four weeks in order to ensure school sites are well-prepared to implement our COVID-19 safety plans.

Teachers have expressed hesitation over returning to the classroom and one teacher on Friday expressed frustration with the decision to KPIX 5.

"I am not confident to be there with any kind of hybrid model. As long as you have contact in an institutional setting, you're having spread of COVID-19," said OUSD teacher Mark Airgood. "We have to know where the virus is. We have to do mass testing and tracing, that's the first step."

"You might think that with COVID, this decision would be easy, but it's not," said Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell in a press release. "We want to have our students back in class as soon as possible and welcoming them back to school has to be safe. But there is inherent tension between the ever-changing science, keeping students and staff safe, and providing the services that students need. The health and well-being of our students, staff and family members is, of course, paramount."

Johnson-Trammell continued: "We know that this extended time away from school and away from their peers is causing serious issues to our students' emotional well being. We are working to balance the risks of COVID with the impact of social isolation and the lack of in-person learning."

Oakland Unified will be working with Oakland city officials and the Oakland Public Education Fund and Tech Exchange to ensure that all students have connectivity and available computers for the continued remote learning with loaned Chromebooks and internet hotspots helping those who don't have access to technology.

The district said there would be an online community town hall meeting Monday at 5 p.m. to unveil additional details of the back-to-school plan. More information is available on the district website.

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