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Reopening: Oakland Students Begin School Year Learning From Home

OAKLAND (KPIX 5) -- As the Oakland Unified School District and the teachers' union still trying to reach a deal on how to handle in-classroom learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the first day of school was eerily quiet with students attending classes remotely.

Oakland High School would normally be bustling with more than 1,600 kids on the first day of the fall semester.

On Monday, it was a ghost town with hallways, classrooms and the school cafeteria all empty. The only activity KPIX 5 cameras could find was for school supply pick-up.

Substitute teacher Andre Walker said it was definitely strange. When asked if he had ever seen a first day like it, he replied, "Never! I say be patient. It's all new to all of us."

At Sankofa Elementary School, principal Dennis Guikema popped into a morning Zoom call with kindergarten teacher Ms. Ghansah's first class.

"The start of the year is always an exciting time, even when it's as crazy and different as this," said Guikema.

The class had lots of activity and was kept to 30 minutes. Kids were attending remotely with their parents. One was wearing a tiara. Another was in a superhero costume.

At one point, the principal had to jump in when the teacher's screen froze.

Guikema said there were three teachers who have opted to teach their Zoom classes from the campus itself. Teachers will reach out to families individually because they know online group classes alone won't be enough.

"It's only one piece though. I mean, there's Zoom fatigue," said Guikema. "So we are doing classroom meetings every single day in the morning at a routine time with each one of our classes. That's a chance to kind of be there all together. And that's a really special piece. But we're not doing Zoom as a school model for the whole day."

The district and the union have been negotiating for more than four weeks to work out details about online classes, how much daily instruction to provide and other aspects.

Oakland Unified School District spokesperson John Sasaki declined to discuss specific points in the negotiations, but said talks are ongoing.

"We're progressing. You know, labor negotiations can always be a little challenging from time to time, but I think it's very clear that both sides want to come to an agreement," said Sasaki. "And they want to get to the business of, you know, forgetting about the negotiations and moving on to the job of educating our kids. Both sides want to do that."

"I am disappointed that it's Monday the first day of school and we do not have an agreement," said Oakland Education Association President Keith Brown.

Union leader Brown said the union is proposing the district bring in substitute teachers to reduce Zoom class sizes.

"You know it's difficult if you have more than 30 students in one Zoom room giving a lesson," Brown explained. "And we feel that that's a way where we can reach our most vulnerable students and improve education outcomes for our students."

One parent told KPIX 5 the district was not ready for today. "We couldn't find out what link to get on, we couldn't find out what class to go into. Things were up on the air."

"Here we are in August and we are acting like the pandemic hit us like last week," said Lakisha Young, Executive Director of advocacy group The Oakland REACH.

Young set up a virtual teaching hub this summer for students, and also has a senior in high school. "So how is she supposed to compete and go to a great college when she is kicking off her school year with one class?" said Young. "This is not acceptable that are kids are not getting more instruction on the first day of school. Why do our families have  to accept such little instruction when they are fighting and advocating for their kids to go to college?"



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