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Students learning in person before the pandemic

School reopenings highlight public-private resource gap in Oakland

on October 16, 2020

Forty elementary schools in Alameda County submitted reopening plans as of Oct. 16, and 10 resumed in-person learning in some capacity this week. All of them are private or charter schools.

Head-Royce, a private K-12 school in the Oakland hills with 880 students enrolled, is set to reopen half-day in-person instruction for kindergarten and first grade on Oct. 19. 

“No one wants to take risks. It’s really this question of how important is it for young children in particular to [receive] in-person education?” said Carl Thiermann, assistant head of school at Head-Royce. “The idea is to make sure not just for their education, but for their mental health, that young children have an opportunity if we can do it safely.”

Barry Turner, a fourth grade teacher at Head-Royce, said he and other teachers will be testing themselves for COVID-19 once a week with self-administered oral swabs, which provide results faster than other tests.

Smaller private schools like Oakland Hebrew Day School and Grand Lake Montessori will be opening later this month too. Both schools serve under 200 students.

The Oakland Unified School District serves about 36,000 students spread across 83 schools, excluding charters. And the district must make reopening decisions jointly with the teachers’ union, the Oakland Education Association. Private schools in the city are responsible for far fewer students and their teachers are rarely unionized. 

“The County Office of Education and Public Health Department gave us the opportunity to reopen as of Oct. 13, this past Tuesday,” said OUSD spokesperson John Sasaki. “That’s not something we can do. There are too many things still at play right now.” 

Even before the pandemic, OUSD struggled to balance its budget, and in recent years has closed schools to consolidate resources. 

“It’s hard to imagine that one of these mitigation strategies that we’ve talked about can be achieved in a resource-deprived environment like the Oakland public schools are,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, an infectious diseases and vaccinology expert at UC Berkeley. “And of course, then what happens is you perpetuate society being divided even further between the haves and the have nots.”

OUSD ordered PPE in preparation for the eventual reopening of schools. But according to longtime Oakland public school teacher Chaz Garcia, there are still long-standing health and safety issues that need to be addressed.

“We have classrooms that do not have ventilation, and my previous classroom had windows that were painted shut,” Garcia said. “So these are real situations that exist around the district and are going to pose a real challenge to actually returning to in-person.”

OEA wants to maintain distance learning in all schools until there are near zero COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations and robust testing and contact tracing measures in every zip code in Oakland. 

The district and union have yet to reach an agreement on this, but informal negotiations are ongoing, Sasaki said.

“Both sides are really trying to figure out exactly what’s going to work, what’s not going to work, what’s going to make people feel comfortable, what’s not,” Sasaki said. “Once we get to the point where we actually have that agreement in place, then we can really talk about when exactly we are going to reopen.”

Just based on the relatively low COVID-19 case rates for Alameda County, returning to in-person learning could be done relatively safely, said Dr. John Swartzberg.

“The problem with those numbers is that it’s not an equal distribution of cases throughout the county,” Dr. Swartzberg said. “Some parts of the county are far more hard hit than others. And of course, those are the zip codes that correlate with the lowest socioeconomic groups in our society.”

Private schools, many located in wealthier parts of Oakland, also tend to have more resources for reopening beyond testing and PPE.

Barry Turner from Head-Royce has an assistant teacher for his class. Once he returns to the classroom, Turner estimates about seven out of his 21 students will remain at home for distance learning and is grateful to have another teacher to help bridge that gap. He said his friend at a public school in Oakland teaches a class of 36 students alone.

“Knowing what they have to go through and what they need in order to be safe and to see what we have, I personally feel very lucky and fortunate,” Turner said. “I feel maybe even safer than some others do, because I know the flip side of what it looks like for public education.”  

Since Head-Royce has the resources to reopen according to county public health guidelines, it will do so, said assistant head of school Carl Thiermann. But to public school teacher Chaz Garcia, reopening any schools in Oakland affects everyone in Oakland.

“Nobody is enjoying this, but it’s better than dealing with people dying…” Garcia said. “If you get this wrong, you could potentially impact people in a way where they could lose their lives.” 

For now, Alameda County private schools with the resources to reopen are mostly doing so. OUSD schools, on the other hand, will continue with distance learning through the rest of 2020, and possibly well into 2021. 

“Bottom line, we need as much support from the federal government and from the state as we can get,” Sasaki said. “School districts everywhere, but in particular here in Oakland, we need additional money to get through this.”

The above image was taken before the COVID-19 pandemic

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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