Oakland’s COVID-19 pandemic quarantine virtual education experiment: Is it working?

by JR Valrey, The Black New World Journalist Society

Everyone in our society has had their lives altered in ways that we would not have imagined two months ago because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gasoline is a dollar lower a gallon than it was at the beginning of March. Hand sanitizer and tissue paper have become hot commodities during the quarantine.

In Oakland and in San Francisco all essential employees and their customers have to wear masks when doing business. It has been reported that a third of local museums in the Bay will remain closed after the pandemic. The non-essential local brick and mortar small businesses that we used to love may be a thing of the past since the government is still expecting business owners to pay rent on their commercial space without allowing them a chance to sell their products or services.

While all these things are important, the most important community commodity is our Black and Brown youth and their education in the wake of the first pandemic-quarantine that most of us have ever experienced. As the late great singer Whitney Houston once sang and reminded us, “The children are the future. Treat them well, and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty that they possess inside.”

On Tuesday, April 28, Gov. Gavin Newson announced that the state will begin opening up in a matter of weeks and that California schools could begin the 2020-2021 school year as early as July or the beginning of August to make up for the classroom hours lost due to the quarantine and to help the workforce begin to go back to work. The governor’s new plan for schools “involves a blended learning model in which students rotate shifts of online learning and in-person learning on certain days of the week to limit contact,” according to California Board of Education President Linda Darling Hammond.

Quetzal-Education-Consulting-partners-Ana-Benderas-dir-of-Humanities-Marylin-Zuniga-dir-of-Elementary-Education-Dani-Wadlington-dir-of-Mathematics, Oakland’s COVID-19 pandemic quarantine virtual education experiment: Is it working?, Local News & Views
Ana Benderas is the director of Humanities, Marylin Zuniga is the director of Elementary Education, and Dani Wadlington is the director of Mathematics for their consulting firm.

Education is changing fast, and we must make it our duty to keep up with the developments, and advocate for what is in the interest of our young people.

Here is a very important conversation that I had about the state of our children and the current state of education in Oakland during the pandemic with Marylin Zuniga, a former teacher at Roses in Concrete elementary school in Oakland and the director of elementary education for her consulting firm, Quetzal Education Consulting.

M.O.I. JR: What is it that y’all do?

Marylin Zuniga: Quetzal Education Consulting provides innovative, culturally sustaining solutions for schools and nonprofits seeking to better serve their students and teachers of color. My role is director of elementary education, which focuses on ways of learning that support education as liberation for elementary aged children.

M.O.I. JR: Have California teachers been adequately trained to deal with the pivot from schools to strictly online education?

Marylin: The teaching field is underfunded and, in many ways, deprofessionalized. Teacher education programs don’t prepare teachers well enough for the classroom, and schools and districts need a lot of support at professionally developing their teachers.

We are not well-trained in digital technologies so, like with most things, we are self-teaching our way through digital learning. I believe the majority of teachers are trying their best with the little they’re given. Teachers are resilient, creative and innovative beings.

M.O.I. JR: Does the nature of teaching change if you take children and teachers out of the social setting of a school and you put them into online forums for hours? How?

Marylin: Yes, and a global pandemic has a huge impact on the social, emotional, physiological and spiritual wellbeing. Our communities are not only experiencing a shift in their educational lives, but in all aspects of their lives.

Unemployment, racial and class inequity, healthcare access and food insecurity are all at play here. The Alameda County Public Health Department just released data revealing East Oakland has the highest number of cases in Oakland. It’s not a coincidence that the zip codes included are home to Black and Brown families and a large population of undocumented immigrant families.

The students I am in contact with miss their friends and teachers. They miss learning and having a routine, they are craving connection and access. Many of my families in the Fruitvale are experiencing food insecurity, unemployment, the rise of ICE raids and fear of deportation. Collectively, we are in a state of anticipatory grief and the reality is, connection and learning just do not feel the same virtually.

M.O.I. JR: We are more than a month into the quarantine. How have the Bay Area’s students responded to the pivot to online education? In the long run, do you predict success or disaster?

Marylin: It depends – and is reliant on privilege and power. I see some students thriving at home and enjoying extra time with family. Some families are able to provide healthy structure and rich learning opportunities. Some families have a backyard where they can play and get fresh air, which boosts their immune system and mental health.

Some young people are having to navigate distance learning without these support systems. Some older students have parental roles over their younger siblings and are responsible for their own schooling, their siblings, cooking, cleaning etc. Some families are experiencing the impact and stressors of unemployment, an increase in domestic violence. It really varies from home to home.

Online education may be sustainable for the privileged but not for many Black and Brown families living in poverty. The distance learning issue only highlights the inequities that have always impacted our students. It’s crucial for educational institutions and schools to provide supplementary support that does not require online access.

M.O.I. JR: What are districts doing to address the shortages in computers in the student population as well as a lack of wifi needed at the homes of students to complete school assignments?

Marylin: I know some schools are trying their best to provide families with hot spots, but there is definitely a funding and preparation issue. Some families are sharing one piece of technology amongst multiple siblings and parents working from home. It’s vital that districts have a system of support ready for continued distance learning that does not require internet access for families to have equitable chances at success.

M.O.I. JR: Tens of thousands of students across the Bay Area have been missing from online school for various reasons. What are districts going to do to address the widening achievement gaps that many Black and Brown students are victims of?

Marylin: It’s important to distinguish between an achievement gap and an educational debt. As Gloria Ladson-Billings shares, the achievement gap is talked about more than anything else in education and yet it doesn’t get to the root of the issue. The achievement gap centers disparities in achievement within the limited context of standardized tests, which are culturally biased anyway.

If we name it as an educational debt, it provides a lens that includes “historical, economic, sociopolitical and moral components.” What we see in schooling in America is an educational debt and in order to address that there has to be a paradigm shift in how we look at providing support to Black and Brown families: an abolitionist lens and reparation model makes most sense to me.

That means we have to work together to dismantle the current systems and freedom dream of what learning should look like for Black and Brown communities and work to redirect funds equitably, based on an educational debt analysis.

M.O.I. JR: Is it possible that strictly online education can help Black and Brown students who weren’t doing well in traditional school settings in your opinion? Why or why not?

Marylin: I see that happening for some students. Some students feel safer at home than in school. I see it to be most true with my nephew actually. Anthony is Afro-Latino and attends a predominantly white public middle school in the suburbs of New Jersey and has experienced racial discrimination and bullying since his early elementary years. This online distance learning is like an answered prayer for him.

Granted, he has extremely supportive parents who have always taught him to speak up and advocate for himself. He is also a creative visual artist and loves to write creative stories and rap songs, so I think this has given him a lot more time to do what he loves. This is truly what I wish for ALL students.

However, this is not the case for all students, particularly younger ones and those with faulty online access. Younger children do not learn best glued to a TV screen all day. They need creative expression and project-based learning, and it’s important for districts to invest in support that can help them provide alternative ways of reaching all students equitably and use this as an opportunity to address some of the issues that have affected our children before COVID-19.

What a great time to invest in a creative, project-based curriculum, or to refresh teachers with sustainable and supportive systems, or to make time to culture build and repair trust with teachers in order to have a healthier and fresh start when and if students come back to campus.

M.O.I. JR: How do you see a 70-80 percent white woman teacher force, already culturally disconnected from most of their student body, dealing with the Black and Brown youth in Oakland and San Francisco who have been traumatized by this pandemic?

Marylin: We see everything we normally see in education when you have non-critical white teachers teaching predominately Black and Brown children: a factory model of schooling, cultural mismatch, deficit mindset, criminalization of Black and Brown youth, harmful and violent punitive practices to address student behavior etc.

The most concerning part of all of this is that more and more of these teachers are virtually inviting themselves into the homes of Black and Brown families without understanding the complex and intersectional identities of our students. Districts need to invest in anti-racist training now more than ever, when teachers’ presence has become more accessible and more intimate in the homes and personal lives of students.

M.O.I. JR: Do you see any silver lining in this pivot to online education?

Marylin: I see this as an opportunity for us to reimagine and “freedom dream.” Online learning amidst a global pandemic has opened our eyes to what clearly does not work about our education system, i.e. the “business as usual” factory model where students are subject to an eight-hour learning day and taught for the purpose of production (high scores in standardized testing, literacy data etc.) rather than for the purpose of self-actualization.

Now it is time, in some ways, to start from scratch and build from the ground up. Quetzal EC is engaging in critical research and thought partnerships in order to address this very opportunity during COVID-19.

M.O.I. JR: Will there be schools after this pandemic? If so, how will they be different? If not, what will society do to help Black and Brown children to adapt?

Marylin: I believe schools will exist after this pandemic. So will prisons and all the other institutions that were built to oppress us. To be clear, the institution of schooling is a colonial project and historically, has always been used to assimilate Black and Brown people into mainstream white culture – consider, for example, Carlisle Schools, Jim Crow laws, segregation, Brown v. Board of Ed., school to prison nexus etc.

However, they don’t have to continue functioning this way. Districts have the opportunity to improve their praxis during this pandemic, using their resources strategically to prioritize the needs of those historically left behind.

Either way, I believe Black and Brown people will not only survive this pandemic, but our people will rise up and thrive through these times. Collectively our Black and Brown ancestors have survived through generations of genocide and slavery. Our very presence is living proof that we have made it through worse and will continue to thrive in honor of seven generations before us and seven generations after us.

M.O.I. JR: What do you think is going to happen to students who needed school as a safe place from what is happening at home?

Marylin: This is a tragic consequence of school closures, obviously, and one that is close to our hearts. As domestic tensions and domestic violence complaints rise, it’s as important as ever for districts to prepare and invest in resources to better serve the social-emotional needs of returning students and to be able to strategically engage in a trauma-informed praxis.

If things happen as they historically tend to, it will be tempting for districts and institutions to act as if nothing happened and just expect students and teachers to perform as usual. The Oakland community, including Quetzal Education Consulting and other groups, offer plenty of supportive services, including trauma informed training, anti-racist and implicit bias training, and trauma-supportive services. We work with highly qualified mental health experts to ensure that both teachers and students get adequate support in their transition back, especially since they did not most likely receive adequate support in their transition out of schools and into distance learning.

M.O.I. JR: Theoretically, once all of the student body in the Bay Area school districts are equipped with a computer, what will the district do about the tech needs of its student population?

Marylin: We believe the solution goes beyond giving access to technology to all students. That’s an important step, but more importantly, we do not wish to believe that online learning can adequately replace human interaction. That is a problematic and dangerous mindset for institutions to lead us towards.

We want districts to receive support to design creative alternatives during the pandemic for equitable and engaging learning for students and for sustainable teaching for educators. Post COVID, we want to optimize our human presence and appreciate the opportunity to be together, which we might have taken for granted before.

M.O.I. JR: How can people get in touch with you online?

Marylin: On Twitter, @marylinzuniga, and IG, mzuniga@quetzalec.com.  

The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey, journalist, author and filmmaker, can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com or on Facebook. Visit www.blockreportradio.com.