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In Oakland, Distance Learners Face Confusion, Teacher Shortage

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A young boy kneels at a desk in his home to use a laptop computer.
An Oakland student learning from home in April 2021. With schools across California having returned to in-person education, those who opted to remain in distance learning now feel shortchanged. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Weeks into the school year, the Oakland Unified School District's rollout of its remote learning program has been mired in problems, as understaffing, poor communication and a lack of organization have led to confusion and frustration for some parents. Some students still haven’t met their teachers, and the first informational session for families interested in the program was held just four days before the start of the school year.

At a school board meeting held last week, Faiza Ayesh, a parent with three young kids enrolled in the Sojourner Truth Independent Study/Online Learning program, complained the program was in disarray.

“We have no teachers, we have no communication from the school about what’s going on,” Ayesh told the board.

While the vast majority of Oakland students returned to campuses in person, 726 students are now enrolled in the independent study program. Hundreds more are on a wait list, and OUSD projects that enrollment will reach 1,112, as parents weigh the risks of sending their kids into classrooms while the highly transmissible coronavirus delta variant drives an elevated case count.

At the first two school board meetings of the year, Sojourner Truth parents said they weren’t even sure whether their children were enrolled, with phone calls and emails going unanswered. Some who had managed to get a spot said they never got login information for their kids’ virtual meetings, or that they were given incorrect passwords. Three weeks in, some said their kids were only getting a half hour of Zoom instruction a day.


That leaves parents who aren’t comfortable sending their kids back into classrooms feeling abandoned by the district. Meanwhile, as the reality of exposure notifications and classroom quarantines sets in, some who opted for in-person school might like to reconsider, but a good alternative is not yet in place.

For Ayesh, the decision to stick with virtual learning came down to her personal experience with COVID. Her fourth and fifth graders recently got the virus. Neither is old enough to be vaccinated.

“I have six kids and we've been through all kinds of flus and viruses,” she said, but COVID left them with "the worst stomach pain ever. My older daughter was literally in the fetal position on the floor for two days.”

Ayesh and her husband, both vaccinated, got mild breakthrough infections from their kids. And weeks after getting sick, her daughter still had lingering pain. “I just didn't want to do this again and put my kids at risk for more problems,” Ayesh said.

The family didn't think of going back to distance learning as a sacrifice — last school year, her kids thrived in Sankofa United Elementary School’s virtual classes, and Ayesh thought she knew what to expect. “I thought everything is going to happen smoothly because we've been doing this for the past almost two years,” she said.

Instead, she learned her children would have to leave Sankofa and enroll in a different school — Sojourner Truth Independent Study —  and though they'd be able to opt back in to in-person school at any time, their spots at Sankofa weren't guaranteed.

Last year, lawmakers created and schools administered distance learning as an emergency alternative during the pandemic. Ahead of this school year, legislators — concerned about students’ learning loss and mental health, and with pressure from parents demanding that schools reopen — limited distance learning in order to ensure school systems brought students back into classrooms.

Traditionally, independent study has offered a way to keep students learning while on extended vacations, or if bullying or a mental health issue created stress at school. But in the face of the continuing pandemic, the programs have had to ramp up to serve more students than ever, while adhering to a more stringent curriculum and class time requirements newly imposed by the state Legislature.

Pre-pandemic, Oakland Unified’s Sojourner Truth Independent Study program served about 200 students, with fewer than 20 of elementary age, according to the school’s principal, Willie Thompson. This year, Thompson said, about half of the 726 students enrolled are TK-fifth graders.

A young woman walks down a leafy street holding hands with a schoolchild wearing a large backpack.
Families pick up their children from Montclair Elementary School on the first day back to in-person learning on March 30, 2021. Most of Oakland Unified's 36,000 students have returned to schools in person this year.

“It's not like we're sitting on our hands here,” Thompson said during the first week of school. “We are talking about a radical shift for us.” He said the level of interest caught leadership off guard. “We knew that there would be some parents opting for distance learning, but not at this scale.”

One of the biggest challenges, he said, has been setting a schedule for students and teachers amid changing enrollment. “It's almost like trying to fly a plane while you build it."

Middle school teacher Mark Airgood was assigned to the program after requesting a medical accommodation from the district, allowing him to stay out of the classroom during the pandemic. On the second day of school, he learned he’d be teaching middle school math and science, subjects for which he has the credentials but not the teaching experience. For the last 20 years, he said, he’s been a special education resources teacher.

"I'm just going to have to get rolling on it," he said of his new assignment.

Sojourner Truth also faced the challenge of hiring new teachers to meet the increased demand, especially in the elementary grades, a problem complicated by a statewide teacher shortage exacerbated during the pandemic. During the first week of school, Thompson said  the program was still short about four of the roughly 18 teachers he had estimated the school needed, not to mention additional staff to meet wait list demand.

To fill the gap, staff from the district’s central office stepped in. “We just need all boots on the ground,” Thompson said, noting that many of the reinforcements are former teachers.

According to Sojourner Truth parents, some of those staffers are still running what limited instruction there is. Jamie Burnell said at the school board meeting last week that her son still hadn’t met his permanent teacher. “I’m frankly shocked that my child is still doing 30-minute lessons almost a month into the school year," she told the board.

Tamia Green’s seventh grade daughter met her English teacher for the first time at the end of the second week of school, after the teacher she’d initially been assigned  had resigned, Green said. Her daughter still hadn't met her math teacher, and when she wasn’t given a password to log in to her Zoom class, Green found it hard to get answers from the school. “I felt like everybody was passing the baton,” she said.

'Plenty of time to prepare'

OUSD is not alone in facing challenges implementing distance learning through independent study, according to Kevin Gordon, president of the Sacramento-based lobbying firm Capitol Advisors Group, which represents hundreds of school districts around the state.

Lawmakers weren’t anticipating the delta variant when they constrained virtual learning options, Gordon said. “Now what happens is there's a high demand for distance learning and a very, very narrow opportunity in the law to offer it. Schools are trapped in the middle, trying to figure out, ‘How do we abide by the law and serve all our kids?’”

The law has also created hurdles for districts trying to work through how to educate quarantined students. The California Association of Suburban School Districts recently sent a letter to lawmakers urging them to make changes to the law, contending  that "challenges are at a critical point" due to "ever increasing numbers of students participating in independent study."  Among the requests for help was a short-term distance learning option for students required to quarantine.

Assemblymember Phil Ting, who championed a return to in-person schooling, stands by the effort to limit virtual learning. “Districts are getting a record level of funding to hire staff,” he said, “It’s been very clear that this is the direction that we were going unless we got a different directive from our public health doctors, and they've had plenty of time to prepare for this. I think that they're having difficulty adapting to change.”

But it’s not the money that districts are complaining about — it’s finding the teachers whom they can spend it on. “It's easy when you're a Monday morning quarterback,” Principal Thompson said. “I'm in the work, and it’s a logistical nightmare in terms of getting up to scale.”

OUSD Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell recently told the school board that 25 new teachers would be allocated to Sojourner Truth: 10 district teachers who've elected to move to the program, along with another 15 who will need to be hired. The school also now has a community school manager on site to facilitate communication with families, and Johnson-Trammell said other services, like tutoring and mental health support, would follow.


Faiza Ayesh, the parent of three students in the program, is hopeful things will work out. But for now, she said, “I feel like our kids were shortchanged. It's not fair. We're just trying to keep our kids safe. We don't want to be a hardship on the school district, but we're in a pandemic. It's not over yet.”

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