Antionette Powell, the head custodian at Garfield Elementary School in East Oakland, demonstrates cleaning protocols in preparation for students return on March 30. (Vanessa Rancaño/KQED)
The Oakland Unified School District’s push to begin reopening some schools next Tuesday is hitting a major roadblock: not enough teachers willing to come back yet.
A truncated reopening timeline and unanswered questions about the process have prompted a majority of teachers, who were given the choice as part of the reopening deal, to opt out of returning to their classrooms next week, leaving parents in limbo and administrators scrambling to prepare for returning students.
Skyline High School, a half dozen elementary schools and 10 preschools that had been scheduled to reopen next week will now remain closed until mid-April because not enough of their teachers have volunteered to return next week. Thirty other elementary and preschools will reopen on an even more limited basis than originally planned because only a small percentage of teachers have opted in.
According to the district's latest tally, over 30 other schools have enough teachers to reopen as planned. Heather Dodge, whose two kids attend Peralta Elementary School in North Oakland, says she was elated when she first heard a reopening agreement between the district and the teachers union had been reached earlier this month. Doing so, she says, would enable her kindergartener to meet her teacher in person for the first time this year.
But when she learned none of the school’s teachers would be returning next week, she felt duped. “They've suddenly done this bait and switch," Dodge said. "I feel really betrayed by it."
The first phase of the district’s reopening plan, announced March 14 and narrowly approved by union membership, offers pre-K through second grade students and some of the highest-needs students from all ages the option to start in-person classes on a limited basis beginning Tuesday, March 30. District and union officials said making the return to in-person classes voluntarily for teachers was an effort to practice safety protocols and build trust with staff before more students are allowed to come back April 19, at which point most teachers can no longer opt out.
OUSD’s challenges are similar to what other districts around the country are facing as they work to get students who have struggled the most with distance learning back inside physical classrooms, notes John Sasaki, a district spokesman. “We expect to face challenges in Oakland under such imperfect conditions,” he said. “We are working to stay one step ahead and communicate with families, but we know that there could be some unanticipated changes.”
As of Thursday, 38% of teachers had volunteered to return, according to the district.
Reasons vary widely as to why many teachers have opted not to return to their classrooms next week. While some aren’t vaccinated yet, many others say the tight turnaround has left them little time to sort out personal logistics like child care. Some teachers have also expressed doubt that the district's agreed-on conditions for a safe and organized return can be met by next week.
“Nobody on either side has said, ‘Here is what your room should look like if it’s ready to go and safe,’ ” said Erin Ronhovde, a third grade teacher and union representative at East Oakland Pride Elementary School. “My room, at least, has not changed at all — nobody's come in to figure out how to open the windows.”
“While we are trying our best to move forward together, there are a lot of logistics that need to be figured out still,” said Tim Douglas, a fifth grade teacher at International Community School, who’s also on the union bargaining team. With less than a week to go, he says, there are still sites that don't have air filters yet. “So those pain points are very real and we're very aware of that.”
So far, about 50 school sites have had safety inspections by district and union representatives, with another 12 expected by the end of the day, according to Preston Thomas, the district's chief services officer.
“When we find out those school sites that might not have enough air purifiers in the classrooms, we’re dropping them off in those spaces,” he said. “We are absolutely confident that we’re going to be able to deliver all the materials to the classrooms to make sure teachers are safe.”
Union officials say the inspections will give them a chance to hold the district accountable in meeting the agreed-on safety standards and will also help build trust and buy-in among teachers.
“Those schools, if they're not safe based on the criteria that we've agreed to, they can't open,” Douglas said.
But for teachers like Ronhovde, facilities aren’t the only problem.
“We have no idea what our day is going to look like as teachers,” she said.
Hybrid learning schedules still aren’t set and may vary from school to school, depending on how many students choose to return, with the expectation that elementary school instructors will lead a distance learning class for all students in the morning and then teach some students in person in the afternoon.
“There's no clarity around what we're supposed to be doing with them during that time [in the afternoon] and how to keep that equitable so parents don't feel pressured to send their kids back to school,” Ronhovde said. “I'm trying to bring clarity to the people I'm representing at my site and there's none to bring.”
Ronhovde did not support the reopening agreement because she said she wanted more detail. “I am vaccinated. I do personally feel safe returning to the classroom,” she said. But she still does not plan to return next week because she worries it will end up being a disservice to students. “Nothing about this right now makes me feel comfortable.”
Montclair Elementary School teacher Jamila Brooks is among the minority of district teachers opting to return to the classroom next week. On the union’s bargaining team, she says she feels a responsibility “to help figure things out, and I can only do that in person.”
Brooks notes, though, that returning requires her to take on less risk than some of her peers: she’s fully vaccinated, doesn't have vulnerable family members she's worried about infecting and works at a school in a community with low COVID-19 infection rates. But as of Wednesday, she still lacked clarity on what her schedule would look like when she returns next week.
School administrators throughout the district are also scrambling to work out what to do for students who show up next week. On Tuesday night, the principal of Peralta Elementary School told parents she was requesting 10 substitutes to fill in because no teachers were volunteering to come back. The following day she said the school would not reopen for kindergarten through second grade students until April 19.
It’s also unclear how many students will opt to return in person next week. There are about 10,000 kindergarten through second grade students in the district, and thousands of special needs students, English learners, unhoused students, foster youth and other at-risk students across all grades who could also be eligible to return next week. But in a survey released March 11, only about half of families in the district said they wanted the option to send their kids back to in-person classes this spring.
“There is a heavy monetary incentive for this rush to happen,” said Douglas from the union bargaining team, referring to the $2 billion pot the state plans to distribute to incentivize reopening. For every day after April 1 that a district is not meeting state reopening expectations it stands to lose a portion of the money.
Although the district denies that the reopening schedule is related to the state funding incentive, Douglas and other union officials say they have felt pressure from officials. “We pushed back at the table that we need a bigger timeline, but OUSD is feeling the pressure from the state. They want to receive those funds,” he said.
OUSD has faced painful budget cuts in recent years, so it’s understandably hard for leaders to walk away from extra funding.
“We didn’t want to leave money on the table,” said OUSD Board President Shanthi Gonzales in a text message, though she also emphasized that the voluntary return period for teachers is vital in helping to build trust around larger upcoming reopening plans. “We wanted to have the chance to make adjustments before the majority of kids are back."
But the ever-changing dynamic has left Peralta Elementary parent Heather Dodge feeling disillusioned.
“The political game that's playing out is making it so stressful for families and so stressful for schools that I fear that it is going to break up public education as we know it,” she said.
This story was updated Thursday evening with new information released by OUSD regarding schools' reopening status.