The best stories in 2021

The biggest news in education in 2021 has undoubtedly been the reopening of schools during a pandemic.

When schools abruptly closed in March 2020, many believed they would be open again in a few weeks, or certainly by the fall. But the pandemic raged as school leaders sought to reopen school buildings safely while spending money on masks, hand sanitizer, outdoor classroom materials, and more. Students at most of Oakland’s public schools continued distance learning during a dangerous winter wave of COVID-19 cases in Alameda County. The promise of vaccines for teachers and school staff became light at the end of the tunnel in early 2021, and more recently, students have also become eligible for the vaccine.

Here’s how the rest of the year went in Oakland.

Families, teachers and the school district debated how to safely reopen schools

Kindergarten teacher Elena Njemanze, who caught COVID-19 from her daughter, wanted to see more safety measures in place before returning to school. Credit: Amir Aziz

In an effort to get schools to reopen earlier, health officials in February prioritized teachers and school staff for the COVID vaccine in February. Although the vaccination allayed the fears of many teachers about returning to class, some still worried about their unvaccinated students and their families.

In March, The Oaklandside set out to answer some of the important questions surrounding the school reopening debate: What safety measures do schools need to be safe to reopen? How do teachers and school staff reach missing students? What did it take for private schools to open with little to no transmission of COVID among students? What impact has the pandemic had on the mental health of students?

Before teachers could return to class, they spent weeks negotiating with the Oakland Education Association teachers’ union with district leaders to determine their working conditions. Their biggest concern was assessing how safe it was to return to class given the level of the spread of COVID in the community, and teachers wanted to tie the reopening to the state’s colored tier system. In March, the district and the union landed on a hybrid, staggered schedule that offered students the option of coming to school a few days a week, for a few hours. Kindergarten to Grade 2 students returned to schools that month and older students began returning to campus in April.

When OUSD welcomed elementary school students to their campuses part-time, many were delighted to see their friends, teachers and school staff. While the school schedule didn’t leave as much time as some had hoped, it did allow students to get out of the house, interact with their peers, and run around a playground. “I’m happy because I love school,” said a 5-year-old Madison Park Academy elementary student. A teacher at the school said, “COVID-19 has taken something from us which we are recovering today. “

The reopening of schools posed all kinds of new challenges, from safety protocols to immunization warrants and distance education

Misty Cross interrupted board members as they began discussing Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell’s employment contract at the first school board meeting of the school year on August 11. Credit: Kathryn Styer Martínez

But just because local schools were starting to reopen didn’t mean students were rushing back to classrooms. Oakland Unity High School, a small charter school in East Oakland, was one of the first high schools to reopen locally. But principals quickly realized that it would take more than just opening the doors to get students back to class.

In August, Oakland Unified was one of the first Bay Area school districts to return to school, this time for a full school day, five days a week. While many parents and families worried about safety measures and whether children could keep their masks on, nerves faded once they saw their children delighted to be returning to school.

At the OUSD’s first board meeting of the school year (and the first face-to-face meeting since March 2020), school board members faced heckling and disruption from teachers. community members demanding that the district increase testing, provide adequate ventilation and ensure student safety. . The first week of school saw more than 100 cases of COVID among students and staff. Experts attributed these cases primarily to community spread, but that has not allayed the concerns of some parents, teachers and others.

In early September, as youth vaccination rates in Alameda County showed large disparities between students by race, the school board began considering a mandate for the students. While much of the board agreed with the idea, some members feared that such a requirement could disproportionately harm black and brown students, who had some of the lowest vaccination rates. Nonetheless, the council voted later this month to enact the mandate. In October, the school board ruled that all students who had not been vaccinated or had not been granted an exemption would not be allowed to continue attending in-person classes after January 31.

Hundreds of families who still weren’t comfortable with returning to in-person learning this year signed up for OUSD’s Sojourner Truth independent study program. Unfortunately, this overwhelmed the school which previously had less than 200 students. State law required independent study programs to undergo changes to accommodate these families, and what was once a flexible, in-person program primarily for high school students has become a virtual academy for over 1,000, leaving Sojourner Truth’s original families with the dilemma of whether to stay or transfer. “Now it’s basically a regular school, but online. This is no longer an independent study, ”said a mother whose son was enrolled in the Sojourner Truth program before the pandemic.

That’s not all that happened in 2021. Here are three stories that could have significant impacts on Oakland’s educational scene in 2022.

Hundreds of students at Oakland Technical High School walked out of class in November to draw attention to the sexual assault on campus and the lack of response from principals. Credit: Amir Aziz

In an explosive announcement, the president of Mills College wrote in March that the 169-year-old women’s college would stop awarding degrees and enrolling undergraduates, and would become the Mills Institute. The college had struggled with declining enrollment and precarious finances for years. Several months later, the school announced it would merge with Northeastern University, a Boston-based university, which drew mixed reactions from students and alumni at Mills.

In November, hundreds of students from Oakland Technical High School rolled out of their classrooms and walked down Broadway, heading to the OUSD central office in downtown Oakland, protesting against sexual assault and misconduct. in their school and demanding that the district address their concerns. The students submitted five requests, which the district leaders said they were making progress on. The protest was part of a wave of similar actions by students in San Francisco and other Bay Area cities.

And finally, OUSD budgetary problems continued to threaten the educational mission of the district. While more than $ 250 million in COVID relief funding avoided some budget cuts in 2021, the district still faces a deficit of more than $ 40 million for the 2022-2023 school year, to which the school board must remedy in the coming months. Alameda County Superintendent LK Monroe sent a letter to OUSD last month warning it will step up its oversight of the district if the council does not take important critical steps to close its deficit, including possibly the consolidation of schools. Some community groups and elected officials in Oakland are pushing back on Monroe and protested in December against what they see as outside interference in OUSD’s educational affairs.

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About Mark A. Tomlin

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