As public education disintegrates into distance learning for the foreseeable future, Oakland parents are coming with solutions

The COVID pandemic has forced most children to sacrifice the fundamental need for socializing with their friends. A few families combining their homeschooling and distance learning efforts can restore the joy of friendship.

by JR Valrey, Black New World Media

Black August 2020 will go down in the books as the first school year when public education in the United States went completely digital, and parents were expected to monitor their youth for five to six hours a day while they complete assignments and learn lessons entirely on video screens. It’s a new set up that is still being figured out by local governments, called distance learning. 

If you couple the pandemic in 2020 with mass unemployment, mass evictions, increased racial tension, police terror, anti-police terror rebellions, shelter in place, elections, freak lightning storms, wildfires, and distance learning, you end up with a mental health crisis. The silver lining in the situation is that societal devastation is being more evenly distributed than it was before; now all classes have to deal with the ills of the world we created, not just the people at the bottom of the capitalist pyramid, although they still have to deal with the brunt. 

In Oakland, a collective of Black mamas created Mamas Empowering Brown Babies as a sort of summer camp. Now they are expanding it into the regular school year, as we witness the disintegration of the education system as we know it. As problem after problem arises, Oakland’s Black community has been coming up with solutions. 

Mamas Empowering Brown Babies, including these mothers, Zianee, Annamae and Damaya, initially founded a summer program for their babies. Now it has grown into a joint homeschooling-distance learning school to ensure their children the best possible education.

JR Valrey: Can you talk about how this distance learning experiment has worked for you as a mother of a young elementary student? What have the ups and downs been like?

Zianee Hunter: Distance learning, as a working parent – remote or essentially – even a parent at home with multiple children is not ideal. 

You have to technically scope your day around their schedule. My son’s online learning is from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. He attends charter school in Oakland. 

Although I hear OUSD (Oakland Unified School District) has video modules and no live teachers, which again diminishes their learning experience and only requires one or two hours of learning time, whereas the students have limited teacher-instructor contact.

That means all other forms of business have to be placed on hold until the child’s is done, specifically for children in grade school. 

The upside is that the children are forced or launched into navigating computer apps and systems to ensure participation, such as recognizing how to type into chat conversations, log onto educational apps and attach and email their work.

The downside is, not every child has a parent or guardian dedicated to ensuring the child’s understanding and following what’s going on properly. The downside is, there is no way to connect with the student’s needs and contact them during difficulty and recognize when emotional support is needed. 

The children, like their parents, are stressed and it’s new – and they need encouragement. Unfortunately, emotional support is hard to feel and to determine through a computer screen trying to manage 20 children live on a zoom screen. It’s just no way a child will be able to push through without a little assistance. 

JR Valrey: How has the first few weeks of starting the OUSD school year off digitally been?

Zianee Hunter: Aug. 14th was the first week completed of distance learning. It was a rough start because most children didn’t understand this would be their norm. Most kids were asking and complaining, “Are we going to go back to school?” and “When can we return?” 

Week one for my son in charter school was an introduction. Meaning, it focused on online etiquette and how to communicate. The children had a hard time following along the first two days but after, they began to understand. 

The first week was frustrating for me, the parent, because I can’t make any sudden moves besides to sit there as if I was in school too, to ensure my son is engaging. To be honest I feel like I am being held hostage and responsible for what teachers are supposed to be doing. 

Due to the fact that this is new, a learning curve will have to be established because not only do they need to learn their new subject, they have to apply computer literacy and most are not (computer literate). Neither are their parents.

JR Valrey: Do you think that the lack of social interaction with his peers in a school environment affects his overall growth? How or how not?

Zianee Hunter: Yes, I know social interaction does affect his growth. Not having your social group of peers learning alongside is like not having a measuring stick: no gauge to a standard. Your peer group either pushes you or stifles you. 

Children around you learning promotes the want or need to learn too. My son is more effective socially because what he does, he may see his peers doing the same or working hard and it validates his learning process. Social interaction encourages them to problem solve amongst each other and provide solutions, even in simple scenarios where they may help one another if one peer is not understanding. 

JR Valrey: Can you talk a little bit about the curriculum that you and your crew of mamas developed for the summer and how you’re expanding it into a full school year curriculum? Who is your crew?

Zianee Hunter: The Mamas for Empowering Brown Babies (MEBB) hosted common core subjects with emphasis on self-love, positive identity and self-awareness. Our curriculum was developed fundamentally through the power of “loving and nurturing” educational growth.

The age range was 5-7 years old, Kindergarten through second grade. All subjects were taught with an Afrocentric (viewpoint), centered so they can clearly see themselves inclusively in higher academic learning.

  • Math: Basic arithmetic and algebraic concepts along with mental math and some logic and problem solving.
  • Language Arts: Parts of speech, how to write a proper sentence, poetry, sight words and comprehension.
  • African and Black American geo-political history.

That was just for the summer. We went hard for our kids because we were not going to wait around to “possibly” know if there was going to be a new school season or not, so we did what was needed so they will not miss a beat.

Mothers were empowered to take control.

The COVID pandemic has forced most children to sacrifice the fundamental need for socializing with their friends. A few families combining their homeschooling and distance learning efforts can restore the joy of friendship.

In this new phase and expanding to the new school year, we’ll be homeschooling and expanding the curriculum through a full school year in small learning bubbles. The small group of four students have been quarantining since April 2020 together and we test monthly to ensure that the bubble isn’t compromised. 

Some students will maintain at their public distance learning schools and we’ll have supplemental support. The remaining students will be homeschooling with the expanded version of our curriculum. There is a requirement of physical social interactions with the youth to come together weekly as a group to socialize. 

Our crew, “Mamas for Empowering Brown Babies,” consists of Damaya Shans, Kamaria Lofton, Tiffany Berry and Zianee Hunter, and we are all the founders of MEBB.

JR Valrey: Do you plan to keep your learning spaces small? How many children do you anticipate maxing out at and how will your school and program work?

Zianee Hunter: I would love to see this program grow. Though they should always remain small learning bubbles, we can always have learning teams and invite other mamas to participate and help teach our babies. 

This started with the Mamas trying to find a way to support one another. We’re a combination of single and working moms and didn’t want our work or lack of support at home or even the current social construct to affect our children’s education. 

I see it as an opportunity to change the narrative in our community, and that is to TAKE CONTROL; do not put your future in anyone’s hands.

So, it’s really all about doing your part as a parent and stepping in. We all teach, cook and provide financially. 

Currently we’re small because we want to ensure a healthy environment and it’s privately funded through ourselves.

JR Valrey: What inspired your crew to write your own curriculum? How is your curriculum different from what is normally taught?

Zianee Hunter: What inspired us was not wanting our children to fail or lose out because the country is in shambles. I see it as an opportunity to change the narrative in our community, and that is to TAKE CONTROL; do not put your future in anyone’s hands. 

We are all competent enough to educate and elevate our children. Also, what inspired us was a need and a void in our community, and the need was: Mamas need help! So we built our village to invest in our children.

JR Valrey: Do you fear your child will be behind in white studies when the new order of education is normalized?

Zianee Hunter: Fear not! Matter of fact, I’m happy to use this as an opportunity to alternatively teach and educate. This is life study in “real time.” 

The new order of education will be normalized, but our children will not be brainwashed. They will have the competency to know the difference. Also, we started this to help build confidence so they will not have any anxiety about the new order of changes. 

JR Valrey: What advice can you give parents who are struggling to deal with this current situation?

Zianee Hunter: My advice is please step up and take control. Though I know enough may be on your plate, please determine what your child’s needs are for learning. I recommend not to leave their destiny and future in the decision making of the public school district. 

Do research on strong online programs. Develop relationships with teachers, past and present. Ask for their help. Surprisingly, a lot are willing to tutor and help assist.

If you’re really empowered to make changes, organize learning groups and set meetups and social events, and reach out to leaders and community helpers. 

Most importantly, just take a minute to figure out your child’s needs and do research on how to meet those needs. If it’s distance learning, be your child’s teacher’s best friend. Establish relationships to communicate how to effectively get your child through a difficult year.

JR Valrey: Can you talk a little bit about your online dance classes? What inspired them? When are they?

Zianee Hunter: In addition to organizing and teaching my child, I conduct online dance training and fitness. It’s been an amazing experience to help people through SIP (shelter-in-place) and provide something fun and eventful. 

I teach Afro dance and HipHop classes. The mission is to connect back to your roots, whether you’re a dancer or not. It’s connecting back to self through movement. Through stressful times, it’s something fun you can do with a group of friends or even with your children! 

I love teaching. I love giving it back to my community as those before me have passed the torch. 

What inspired my dance classes was being an after-school community center kid, and I had leaders in the community come and teach me all the jewels of arts, culture and education. It saved my life at a time growing up in Oakland where you were on the streets or playing sports or an artist. 

I chose to dance. I know what it did for me and I witnessed how my classes cultivated others to have personal breakthroughs. 

Currently, my classes are available virtually online via Zoom. They’re on Tuesday nights at 7:30 p.m. PST. I have students all over, from NYC to California.

You can sign up for classes through all social media platforms: Instagram @zeehype, Facebook @zeehype or simply email me at zeehypedance@gmail.com and I’ll navigate you through the registration process and place you on the email list for all my dance class events.

JR Valrey: How can people contact you?

Zianee Hunter: I can be contacted at 1-347-764-2098; leave a message or text. Or email Smaashhouse@gmail.com

SF Bay View Oakland Bureau Chief 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.