by JR Valrey, Minister of Information, Oakland Bureau
District 3 Director of the Oakland School Board VanCedric Williams weighs in on what is going on at Oakland Unified School District schools post-Covid pandemic lockdowns. Oakland schools are plagued with children who are returning behind academically, children with mental health challenges created by or exacerbated during the pandemic, abusive households, disciplinary issues, housing insecurity, poor nutrition and more – on top of everything OUSD was struggling to deal with prior to the pandemic.
Williams talks frankly about some of the colossal challenges facing OUSD now that the lockdowns are over and the charter school movement has become more entrenched in the town, potentially leading to the collapse of the Oakland Unified School District in the coming years. Check out Director VanCedric Williams as we discuss the dismal state of public education in Oakland as students and their parents approach the second full consecutive semester since lockdown.
JR Valrey: What is the state of the OUSD now that we are fastly approaching the three year anniversary of the pandemic and the one year anniversary of schools opening back up?
VanCedric Williams: The pandemic is not over, and I believe Covid is not going away. OUSD must continue to focus on community education and engagement regarding Covid best practices.
Although OUSD managed to get through the pandemic, our attendance today is lower than it was before the pandemic and our students are still at risk. Families are not feeling supported by OUSD, and they are choosing to keep their children at home.
Some are moving to other districts which have smaller class sizes, and others are enrolled in our online program at Sojourner Truth. OUSD aligned its practices with Alameda County Public Health, providing folks with home testing kits, regional test centers and pop up mobile testing sites.
JR Valrey: What are some of the biggest administrative challenges that the COVID lockdown exacerbated in the OUSD?
VanCedric Williams: One of the challenges we face is the district-to-parent communication; sending emails to parents through our district platform is not enough. We have to develop a more robust system of communication to our school community. We need to meet the families where they are in order to educate them on OUSD testing protocols in our Black and brown schools. We also need to provide more assistance for our unhoused, foster youth and students with disabilities.
JR Valrey: What are some of the biggest issues that teachers are facing in the classrooms, considering students were out of school for over a year during the lockdowns?
VanCedric Williams: Some of the biggest issues facing educators were flipping their whole programs to an online platform – overnight – without training or assistance. Educators were faced with taking care of their own families, worrying about Covid, and still educating our young people. Educators found new ways to connect in the virtual platform as well.
JR Valrey: Is Covid still an everyday issue on school campuses across Oakland?
VanCedric Williams: As long as Covid is around, it will continue to be an issue on campuses. Especially when it comes to the cleanliness of our school buildings, restrooms and common places where students and faculty gather. We are still in need of resources at the school sites, and the district needs to monitor and provide information to the school community and families in regards to the Covid cases. The expectation is that OSUD will work on school site prevention to manage Covid on school campuses.
JR Valrey: How do you think the recent elections will affect the upcoming schools that are scheduled to close this year and in the 2023-24 school year in Oakland?
VanCedric Williams: I believe that the recent school board election sends a clear message to our OUSD community that our schools are not for sale and that we must rescind closures and provide transparency and accountability in all that we do. For years now, OUSD has chosen a path of operation that devalues our students, their families, educators and the local community.
OUSD aligned its practices and policies with special interests, thought-partners and groups who I believe have profited with contracts that moved public resources into private hands.
School closures have had a devastating impact on our BIPOC communities. OUSD balances its budget on the back of our Black students. We must move OUSD in the direction of investing in our schools, better relationships with our labor partners, implementing a robust community engagement plan to listen and follow the lead of the community before any such closures arise.
JR Valrey: Are you concerned about the district mailing school transfer info to people, as if it is a foregone conclusion that the schools will close – although it is well known that the majority on the OUSD school board is against closures?
VanCedric Williams: I’m not surprised. The district has closed 18 BIPOC schools in the last several years and it is good at creating conditions to close schools instead of investing in schools that need the resources and support.
JR Valrey: Besides the school closures, what are some of the biggest issues on your agenda that parents and students should be aware of in the coming months?
VanCedric Williams: They should be advocating for more investments in all schools, but especially in District 3 schools. We have some of the best schools in the district. The new McClymonds renovations are underway, we must repair harm with Reparations for Black students, implement transparency and accountability for Community Schools, support OUSD students with the All-City Council, increase linked pathway opportunities for our foster youth and students with disabilities, create safe spaces for LGBTQ+ students and support our BIPOC students.
We need OUSD budget accountability – reducing the district’s dependence on contracts, consultants, and out of state vendors. We need to focus our energy on training up our staff and keep our dollars at the school site instead of giving public funds away to privatizers.
JR Valrey: How do people stay in touch with what you are doing online? How do people stay connected to what the OUSD School Board is up to?
VanCedric Williams: The board and district officials need to hear the community, come to those board meetings every second and fourth Wednesdays of the month. Your voice is very vital to moving a community led agenda.
JR Valrey, journalist, author, filmmaker and founder of Black New World Media, heads the SF Bay View’s Oakland Bureau and is founder of his latest project, the Ministry of Information Podcast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Instagram.
This story was made possible by a grant from the National Association of Black Journalists.