Oakland Unified School District is Struggling with the Pandemic: an interview with OUSD Board Director VanCedric Williams

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By JR Valrey, the People’s Minister of Information

As Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner advocates for the 900 schools, in his jurisdiction, to become Covid vaccination centers to hasten distribution to his district, it is important that we know where Bay Area elected officials stand on the controversial proposal of forced vaccinations for teachers, and possibly students. Some believe Supt. Beutner’s proposal will hasten the process of ending shelter in place and biologically protect the public; while others ponder the cost in flesh, of forcing people to get experimental vaccines that have not been proven to be safe. As we approach the one year anniversary of shelter in place, we are taking a look at the Oakland Unified School District’s response to the pandemic, with newly elected Oakland Unified School District Boardmember VanCedric Williams. 

JR Valrey: What would make Oakland schools safe to reopen in your opinion? And are you in accord with Gov. Newsom’s reported February deadline, for re-opening the state’s schools?

VanCedric Williams: Please check this OUSD reopening page for more information. https://www.ousd.org/reopening2021infosessions. Oakland schools teachers want to go back when it is safe. OUSD believes it is safe, when COVID cases fall to the orange tier. Also, OUSD has stored a three months supply of PPE, in anticipation when students and educators return. Teachers, like everyone else, are eager to receive the vaccine and go to work. They are waiting on the State of California to roll out the shots in a safe way. Let’s be fair, everyone should be ready to return to work. When that happens, then we know it’s safe for teachers to return. Students and teachers should not have to risk their lives if District personnel, other businesses, city, county or state workers don’t have to return work either.

JR Valrey: What do you think about the Los Angeles Unified School District making Covid vaccinations mandatory for teachers to return to school? Is that something you will try to apply to Oakland? 

VanCedric Williams: I don’t have much information on LAUSD, so I can’t speak to it. On the other hand, I believe that OUSD doesn’t have any funds to purchase the vaccine or resources.  The state will have to intervene with providing the vaccine to teachers in OUSD. Also OUSD will use the best scientific evidence from the State and County to guide our decision to return to school. If the State of California pays for the vaccine, then I can see everyone, a majority of students and teachers receiving the vaccine and returning to school. 

JR Valrey: What is being worked on to deal with the disaster of distance-learning?  The children are not learning en-masse effectively? 

VanCedric Williams: It is not acceptable, but we need more funding from the State of California. Of course, affluent students and their parents can afford private school and they have the resources to return. Instead, our vulnerable and marginalized students face many more financial challenges like health care, internet, devices, housing, food, and job insecurity, and many family members may have pre-existing conditions. Our schools are under-resourced in their community and need more financial help to bring the accessible distance learning resources to all students. The bottom line is the district needs more funding to provide equitable support. If the President and Senators can bail out corporations, employees, they should bail out schools. What is holding the Governor back in providing the funds necessary to increase learning outcomes?  

JR Valrey: How are children with no support at home being assisted and prevented from flunking at this pivotal time during the pandemic? 

VanCedric Williams: California is the fifth largest economy in the world, but is in the bottom third for per pupil spending, out of fifty states in the country. Alabama and Mississippi spend more per child then we do. We need more funding to help administrators, counselors, teachers and classifieds perform regular assigned weekly engagement checks to all students and families. These regular wellness checks will allow OUSD to provide support for our most vulnerable and marginalized students.

JR Valrey: Do you think that there is such a thing as computer burn out? If so, how will the board deal with the excessive hours a week of screen time necessary to pass classes? 

VanCedric Williams: Yes, humans were not made to sit in front of computers every day for excessive hours. I think we all have experienced computer burn out. The State of California regulates the amount of computer time for instruction. These rules are connected to District funding called Prop 98, but teachers can use either asynchronous and synchronous learning, to balance computer hours per week for all grade levels. OUSD teachers need to use instructional practices to balance computer burnout. Unfortunately, high schools students are mandated to attend five classes a day, based on the State’s expectations.

JR Valrey: How are the district’s students getting regular exercise during the pandemic? 

VanCedric Williams: Exercise is essential for the well-being, mental and physical health of our students, but you don’t want them to go outside and catch COVID. OUSD has over 80+ schools and each school has different physical education activities and expectations. There isn’t a universal mandate for one size fits all, during this pandemic. Many teachers are asking students to use spaces in their homes to complete exercise assignments.

JR Valrey: What are some of the biggest challenges that you face, coming into this job as a newly elected member of the OUSD school board, during the pandemic?

VanCedric Williams: In my first few weeks as District 3 Director, I haven’t had any real challenges. I enjoy what I’m doing. I’m meeting new folks every day. Last week, I hosted my first monthly town hall and I’ve been engaging in daily listening sessions with students, families, educators, and community stakeholders. Everyone has a different experience with OUSD and my job is to take those experiences and seek out solutions and support them the best why possible. 

JR Valrey: What are some of the district’s achievements in dealing with its students during the era of distance learning?

VanCedric Williams: Here is a brief summary of what has been distributed over the past 9 months to our families.

  • 1,000,000 adult and family style meals provided by World Central Kitchen, FARE Community Kitchen,  and Alameda County CARES funds.
    • This is so critical because WCK was providing critical jobs and support for Oakland small businesses during the pandemic to keep restaurants open and our families employed. (link to campaign)
  • 250,000 boxes of fresh produce delivered to our families from Food Bank, Eat. Learn. Play and Salesforce. This will continue into the new year.  Here is a press release.
  • Over 5 million Clif Bars that have been distributed to OUSD families (press release)
  • 800,000 Diapers in partnership with Help a Mother Out (Kai Forsley Special Gift)
  • 50,000 pounds of pet food from Berkeley Humane (press release)

I know that there are so many other organizations that have leaned in to provide support, but I wanted to give a quick recap of where we have been and where we are headed.

Over the Winter Break, OUSD has also continued to provide support for our families during the pandemic.  A few highlights:

  1. 16,000 families were given 3 weeks (51 meals) student breakfast, lunches and suppers to provide food during the Winter break.
  2. As a special gift to our students, Stephan and Ayesha Curry donated 5,800 book boxes with culturally relevant books for OUSD families that arrived right before Christmas.
  3. Eat. Learn. Play and Salesforce have provided produce boxes for families during the 2 week hiatus to keep a steady supply of fresh vegetables to our families.
  4. In partnership with Alameda County and Revolution Foods we have provided 150,000 adult meals to families over the break.
  5. We now have 12,000 families signed up for home delivery of meals through Growing Together that is employing OUSD families as drivers to support our food distribution.

A few highlights from 2020, 

  • OUSD’s partnership with Oakland Undivided created rich conversations about how to bring resources into OUSD to support the start of the year. (these conversations are ongoing).
  • On August 11th, we had enough chromebooks and hotspots at school sites on the first day of school to ensure that every student who registered for school could get a computer and hotspot if needed.
    • OUSD purchased 15,000 new student Chromebooks
    • OUSD Purchased 7,000 hotspots 
    • Oakland Undivided delivered 17,000 Chromebooks to students and families.
    • Oakland Undivided delivered 10,000 hotspots to OUSD students with unlimited data.
  • We have upgraded the technology for our staff to support distance learning and working remotely.
    • Delivered over 2,400 Surface Pro Laptops to our teachers, counselors, site administrators, attendance specialists and administrative assistants.
    • 500 Hotspots for teachers that have struggled with their connectivity during distance learning
    • Over 2200 teachers received a second monitor, mouse and peripherals to support distance learning

JR Valrey: What are you currently working on? How can people keep up with you?

VanCedric Williams: I’m working on the Reparations for Black students, Native Lands-Acknowledgement Resolution, and Black Lives Week-In School resolution. You can hit me up on FB-VanCedric Williams, Twitter-OUSDVan, IGVanCedricfor OUSD, or vancedric.williams@ousd.org 

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