Oakland schools start Aug. 10: Hope for the best, expect the worst

Taiwo Kujichagulia-Seitu, MBA, with her children

by JR Valrey, Black New World Journalists Society

History teaches us that the people who govern the United States have no regard for the health of Black people and in this case Black children, as the Oakland Unified School District tries to finalize its plans for the looming ‘20-‘21 school year, which starts in Oakland on Aug. 10. As COVID infections spike in Alameda County and the governor issues a new round of quarantine lockdowns, Black parents are rightfully terrified of what the government would like to subject our children to when they decide it is “safe” for our children to be in traditional schools. 

We must never forget that we are never powerless. We have the power to organize a coalition to fight back. This is not an issue that just Black people are facing. 

Taiwo Kujicahulia Seitu is one of the most intelligent, politicized, qualified, loving teachers that I know in the Oakland Unified School District. She is a part of the Black Women’s Caucus of the Oakland Education Association (OEA), a certificated teachers’ union that is fighting for the safety of our children and the staff in the public education of Oakland’s children. 

I wanted to publish this Q&A to give people the sense that a certain group of Black women teachers are at the bargaining table on the ‘20-’21 school year with the Oakland Unified School District. Check out Taiwo in her own words, which we must take very seriously so as to get involved in this fight.  

Taiwo: With regard to concrete plans, I would like to begin by saying that the Oakland Unified School District and the Oakland Education Association are currently bargaining what returning to school in the fall will look like. We know two things only: the start date of school and that we are beginning with crisis distance learning. Everything else is currently being bargained. 

It was misleading for the district to release plans to the media as though they had been finalized. OEA members will not accept plans that will endanger any of our students, families and staff.

JR: What is OUSD’s Black Women Caucus? And what is its history?

Taiwo: The Black Women’s Caucus was officially founded during the 2019-2020 school year by several Black women teachers in the Oakland Education Association (OEA). All extremely familiar with how racism negatively impacts Black students, families and teachers, our goals are to work for educational justice for Black students and families and for the sustainability of Black teachers. 

JR: When is school supposed to start in Oakland? And what are the general plans for going to school in the COVID era? 

Taiwo: School in Oakland begins on Aug. 10. We will begin the school year with crisis distance learning. The OEA has termed this “crisis distance learning” because it is not truly distance learning in the sense that there is an existing infrastructure in place to teach via distance learning. 

We all recognize that we have only moved to this model of teaching as a result of the pandemic. As such, we are teaching the best we can under the circumstances, but it will not be comparable to in-person instruction or even to what families would find in schools specifically dedicated to online learning.

JR: How will social distancing be implemented effectively? 

Taiwo: The Oakland Education Association and Oakland Unified School District are currently bargaining around how to effectively practice social distancing when in person learning resumes. Teachers are well aware of the physical constraints we have in schools, such as poor ventilation, classrooms with windows that do not open or no windows at all and large class sizes. 

We are also aware of budgetary constraints such as limited funds to provide enough supplies for students so they do not have to share, enough PPE for students and staff, and increased amounts of soap, paper towels and hand sanitizer. Teachers know full well the limitations we have consistently had in the past, let alone during a pandemic. As a result, the OEA is committed to bargaining with OUSD until a proposal is presented that truly puts the safety of students, families and staff first.

JR: If the first four weeks of school are at home, what is OUSD doing to assure that all of the district’s students have access to computers and the internet?

Taiwo: Individual school sites began passing out the Chromebooks they had on campus in March when the shelter-in-place started. How OUSD will handle this as a district is yet to be seen.

Our strike was successful because parents supported it by keeping their students home. If parents refuse to send their students to school out of safety concerns, OUSD will have to create alternative plans. 

JR: What will a normal school work week look like, and how will it differ from pre-COVID school?

Taiwo: I honestly have no idea.

JR: How will the OUSD deal with its huge budget deficit that is now compounded by COVID?

Taiwo: Once again, I have no answers for that.

JR: What is OUSD doing to deal with the compounded mental health challenges that this school year will surely bring to students, staff and administration? 

Taiwo: OUSD has counselors who work in the schools. They make themselves accessible to students and staff. I know many of them called to check in with students, families and staff during the initial shelter-in-place. Additionally, teachers also regularly checked in with students and families. I would imagine that would continue, but there has been no official word yet at the district level.

JR: What options do parents who are afraid to send their child to school because of the out-of-control COVID infection rates in Alameda County have to homeschool?

Taiwo: Well, any county on the state watch list for increasing COVID rates must begin school with distance learning. Additionally, distance learning will be recommended for students with underlying health conditions and for students who live with people with underlying health conditions. Due to environmental racism, I have a sneaking feeling that this would be many of our students. 

Quite honestly, parents always have options. Their best bet, however, is to make their objections heard through organizing. When the parents unite with teachers to ensure the safety of our students, families and staff, OUSD will have no choice but to listen. 

Our strike was successful because parents supported it by keeping their students home. If parents refuse to send their students to school out of safety concerns, OUSD will have to create alternative plans. 

JR: With the smaller class sizes and shorter on-campus week for students, is the district offering more after-school care as well as child care assistance for the youngest students, as well as more extracurricular activities for the teenagers? If not, what does OUSD expect them to do?

Taiwo: Early childhood education teachers are, in large part, represented by a different union. So, I don’t know how this impacts child care assistance. OUSD, however, is not offering any additional activities. On many campuses, that was offered by after-school program partners whose budgets have been dramatically reduced as a result of pandemic crisis distance learning.

JR: What is your biggest concern surrounding Black students enrolled in OUSD next year?

Taiwo: My biggest concern for Black students is for their, and their families’, health and safety. Black families are at a disproportionately high risk of dying from COVID. Many of our Black students have asthma, which puts them at a higher risk for contracting COVID. 

Teachers cannot teach students who are absent due to illness, and the recovery time for COVID is not days, but weeks or months. It’s in everyone’s best interest to ensure that when we do go back to school, we go back safely. 

I am a teacher with a history of asthma. I am a parent of two OUSD children with a history of asthma. I don’t plan on sending my own children back to school until I know for certain that we will all be safe. OUSD has not convinced me of that yet.

JR Valrey, journalist, author, filmmaker and founder of the Black New World Journalists Society, can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com or on Facebook. Visit www.youtube.com/blockreporttv. All stories related to COVID-19 were partially made possible by the Akonadi Fund #SoLoveCanWin.