By JR Valrey
With Oakland schools partially reopening, many students and parents alike are not adequately being informed about the deals and deadlines that the teachers unions and the district are making, in regards to opening, after the Covid 19 shelter in place mandate forced school closures across the state, over a year ago. Taiwo Kujichagulia Seitu is a teacher at Madison High School, as well as a parent of students in the Oakland Unified School District, as well as a member of the Oakland Education Association, one of the teachers’ unions, and I sat down with her to talk about why the Oakland Unified School District is reopening schools, 8 weeks before the end of the school year. We also discuss where teachers expect students to be academically, when students have spent over a year away from brick and mortar classrooms, distance learning through computer platforms.
Covid 19 has dealt a catastrophic blow to the already ailing public education system, locally, so it is on the community to help fix this broken system or thousands of Black and Brown children will fall through the academic cracks, as a result of the calamity that Covid 19 has caused in a school district that has been under state control, since 2003. Check out Taiwo Kujichagulia Seitu in her own words.
JR Valrey: What deal did the teachers union and the school district strike, to allow schools to reopen?
Taiwo Kujichagulia Seitu: The agreement was for a combination of in person and distance learning as long as the following criteria are met:
- PPE provided for staff and students
- Social distancing
- Contact tracing
- Ventilation in all workspaces
- Quarantining individuals who are exposed to covid
- Increased access to testing
There are varying schedules across the district, however students attending school in person do so on a hybrid schedule. Some of their classwork is online, and some of it is in person.
JR Valrey: What is the thinking behind the children being ushered into classrooms with less than 8 weeks left in the school year? How does this make sense?
Taiwo Kujichagulia Seitu: It makes dollars and cents. It’s a financial decision. The Biden-Harris administration’s “American Rescue Plan” released $81 billion in funding to schools across the country for the purpose of “safely reopening”. In order to receive the funding, school districts have to provide in-person learning. The state of California was allotted $10 billion of those funds. So OUSD, a historically underfunded district, pursued the portion of the funding allotted for it, and here we are.
At the end of the day, the vast majority of teaching and learning will still be virtual since students will only be on campus 1 to 2 days per week for 3 to 4 hours at a time.
For the record, there are some districts who turned down the money, opting instead to finish out the school year virtually. These districts, however, have historically had more funding and resources. Thus, they were in a better position to make decisions they felt were best for their community, without the need to secure additional funding.
JR Valrey: Can you explain what the pandemic has taught us about the blue collar economy in the U.S. and education?
Taiwo Kujichagulia Seitu: For starters, it made it crystal clear that the blue collar economy is the engine that makes our country run. Their work is more valuable to most of the population than many white collar workers. Also, the educational system in this country, for many, functions as childcare. This is a fundamental flaw in the system and leads to multiple problems.
So, essentially, in order for the economy to function, people have to have a place to send their children. Since we live in a capitalist country which prioritizes profits over people, schools being closed means many essential workers lost their child care. Without child care, people cannot work.
The problem however, is that educators are not babysitters. Childcare is child-care, and education is education. They are not one and the same, and they should not be treated as such. Educators didn’t all simultaneously decide to walk off the job one day. These are the same people who are so committed to our students that we routinely use our own resources to enhance their access to educational opportunities. The pandemic necessitated that safeguards be put into place to limit community spread. In a humane society where the welfare of the people is considered more important than profits, policies would exist to ensure that childcare is available for workers.
JR Valrey: Now that we have passed the one year anniversary of the shelter in place order, what are the teacher’s expectations for the students? Do y’all expect the students to be at their proper skill level for the grades that they are in?
Taiwo Kujichagulia Seitu: Our expectations are that students will push themselves to do their best work when possible. Due to the pandemic, the circumstances for students vary widely depending on the health and finances of their families. Some students became the caregivers of younger siblings or cousins while sheltering in place. Some students had to begin working full time to make ends meet at home. Some younger students are isolated at home, attempting to navigate online classes at home. Some students, whose parents have the ability to work from home, have adults in the home to work with them and are doing well. Some entire families have had Covid. Some families lost employment and are experiencing housing insecurity, so those students cannot focus on classwork. I could go on. The bottom line though is that the ramifications of the pandemic are so far reaching, that teachers know that many students are behind. So, a part of our planning for next year is creating ways to get students back on track academically. It’s essentially the same thing we do at the beginning of each school year – reviewing what students forget over the summer. This coming school year, however, this will be a much more extensive process of reviewing and reteaching concepts, ideas and information.
JR Valrey: As for the Oakland Unified School district, how has distance learning worked out for the Black and Brown students up until this point?
Taiwo Kujichagulia Seitu: It’s a mixed bag. Some students lost their primary support system when schools closed. For these students, school provided a sense of stability. Many schools have lost students to increased gun violence.
Some students, however, are flourishing. Students who had a difficult time navigating school in-person (either due to extreme shyness or being easily distracted, or because they were being bullied at school) are excelling online. There are students making honor roll for the first time, because they have help at home (since their parents are also home due to the pandemic).
As rough as this journey has been, there have been huge gains. Before the pandemic, the vast majority of our students did not have chromebooks at home. Now every student has a chromebook, and knows how to access online platforms to an extent that was incomprehensible pre-pandemic. There is no single narrative.
JR Valrey: Why is there a Black Students Reparations campaign in the OUSD? How is the Black students reparations campaign going? Has there been anything voted on, or legislation written in support of its demands?
Taiwo Kujichagulia Seitu: The school board actually passed the Reparations For Black Students resolution. The campaign was created to remedy the racist practices and policies prevalent in OUSD that pushed approximately 30,000 Black students out in the past 2 decades.
JR Valrey: Although you are a teacher in OUSD, you also have your children as well as nieces and nephews in OUSD, do you feel that the district is doing all it can to make the students and teachers, and parents feel safe returning to school during this pandemic?
Taiwo Kujichagulia Seitu: I think a better job can be done overall with communication. What the public needs to know is that the things that affect our children during the school day have to be agreed upon with the people physically present in the schools. We (teachers, custodial staff, counselors, school nurses, para-educators, school librarians, food service workers, etc.) are the people on the ground with the knowledge of what does and does not work and what’s feasible based on the latter. So district officials make proposals which we (the collective in the schools) then negotiate (bargain) and ratify (vote on).
That is how the process works. Since multiple unions represent the variety of people working in schools, this is usually not a quick process.
What repeatedly happens is that the district makes proposals and releases their details to the public. The public then, having no idea that it is a proposal only (since it has not been bargained or ratified by the multiple unions representing people who work directly in the schools), believes that these are concrete plans. Later, when plans are modified upon completion of the bargaining process, the public feels like the district keeps changing plans, not realizing that there was never a plan in place to begin with, because it was still in the proposal phase.
In times of a pandemic, this miscommunication feels very unsafe.
JR Valrey: How can people stay up to date on what is going on with the OEA and OUSD?
Taiwo Kujichagulia Seitu: Look for joint statements released from OEA and the OUSD. Referring to the previous question, if OUSD is the sole source of information, chances are the information you are hearing is still being bargained, which means the details are liable to change. That’s a good thing though because the people negotiating on your children’s behalf are the ones working directly with them, and many are also parents of OUSD students.