by Minister of Information JR Valrey, Oakland Bureau Chief
Many families went through hell trying to navigate the Oakland Unified School District’s (OUSD) distance learning program during the COVID pandemic lockdowns, in a school district full of employees who had never been trained on how to educate students in this way. To make matters worse, parents had no idea how to support their children, during this educational experiment, which consisted of the COVID pandemic lockdown’s internet device-dependent education program.
As a result of the Oakland Unified School District being caught off guard, school age children suffered tremendously from the lack of having all of the resources required to participate in computer learning, to widespread mental health issues, to disciplinary problems over Zoom that disabled the teacher from teaching complete lessons to students who wanted to learn, to low attendance, and so on.
It is important that we as a community examine what went right and what went wrong, because according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Economic Forum, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns were just a dress rehearsal for the big pandemic that is “plan-dicted” to come around 2025, involving the RSV (respiratory syncytial virus).
Terez McCall is a parent of two youth inside of the Oakland Unified School District and she describes in her own words what it was like living through a pandemic, having health issues, and still trying to make sure that her youth learn the material needed to proceed to the next grade, all at the same time. The Oakland Unified School District, like almost every other school district around the nation, failed in a major fashion and now it’s the children who are paying for it the most, by, at the minimum, being academically affected.
Society has opened back up, but there are residual effects of the COVID pandemic lockdowns that need to be studied now by experts and the community if for no other reason than to aid the youth who have been adversely affected. Check out Terez McCall, a mother of OUSD students, who successfully maneuvered her children through the OUSD mental mine-field called distance learning during the Covid pandemic lockdowns.
JR Valrey: As a parent of OUSD students during the pandemic lockdown, what was that experience like?
Terez McCall: So for our family, the lockdown was an extremely stressful, scary and frustrating experience. On top of getting conflicting info from so-called authorities about what we were facing, we were specifically dealing with serious health issues, grieving a loss, and in the middle of a stressful move when everything shut down.
Families were given about a day’s notice and (some) children were sent home with chrome books and hot spots. My children had to use tablets and cell phones initially, while I used the one laptop in the house to work. Coffee shops, libraries, even parks were closed to the public, so that cut a critical line of communication, community and internet access.
We didn’t know how real or how serious this whole thing was, and we had little direction beyond staying away from friends and family, and wearing masks 24/7. I’m immune compromised, so it felt even more dire, and as a result we spent days and weeks without leaving the house.
We were all more anxious, cranky, irritable, even lonely at times without seeing loved ones and friends every day.
My children went from an active and enriching day-to-day life, with art, music, movement and martial arts classes, to being cooped up in the house all day, relying on screens. In the beginning we would walk for blocks just to get fresh air and exert some energy – especially for my youngest, who was always running, jumping, flipping, playing etc., but couldn’t do any of that in the apartment.
We were all more anxious, cranky, irritable, even lonely at times without seeing loved ones and friends every day. I fussed a lot, they bickered often, and it took awhile before we could set up separate spaces for everyone to do what they needed to with minimal interruptions. My youngest ended up doing her schoolwork at the kitchen table (which was an issue at times if I had to cook or clean between 9 and 2); my eldest had a makeshift desk set up in the room, and I slept and worked from the living room, all day, every day. Getting outside was the only thing that kept us somewhat sane!
In 2020, there were also crazy fires during online learning time, so the air wasn’t safe outside for months and we were trapped indoors. All of this definitely took a toll on our children’s mental and physical health, but they were still expected to show up focused and eager for online learning. It was a challenge to say the least, but also preferred to nothing at all.
JR Valrey: How did the lockdowns affect both of your school age children, socially and academically?
Terez McCall: The lockdown was tough on my children, who are both VERY social and active. Both have a ton of friends, are in extracurricular groups at school and in dance and arts companies outside of school! It was hard on them to have it all come to a screeching halt when the world shut down.
While my children had good teachers, there was only so much they could do within the constraints of an already stressed and dysfunctional system.
We were in a one bedroom apartment, and the three of us were trying to do separate activities in about a 600 square foot space. I had customer service calls and Zoom meetings while they were being given instruction and even doing PE in the other room. They had to try to stay quiet because of my work and our neighbors, who of course were all stuck at home – many working as I was.
I was frustrated at the lack of info and while my children had good teachers at their respective schools, there was only so much they could do within the constraints of an already stressed and dysfunctional system.
My daughter’s class, for example, had nearly 30 students and the teacher was expected to not only teach material, but manage them on screen. In the beginning I think they got maybe three hours of daily instruction max? My child is very hands-on and had a hard time with staying engaged on-screen, so in between work calls I would check on her to make sure she wasn’t doodling, playing around, chatting on the side with friends, etc.
As a result, there was a ton of micro management, where teachers had to call kids out on what they were wearing (pjs or a hoodie, for example), if they were eating during “virtual” class, or sitting up straight enough, if their camera or headphones were on, all adding to the strain.
I had to explain that I was home, on calls, so my kid could not read aloud with the class, or that she was cold in the apartment and needed her hoodie, or that we were fighting a cold and she had permission to drink tea or use the bathroom when needed. It was impossible to translate the classroom rules and regimen online, and I don’t know what kind of direction the teachers were given beyond just conducting class as usual but via screens.
My frustrations don’t even reflect the experience of so many families who were un/underhoused and maybe couldn’t be on camera, had technology limitations and internet issues, or parents who had to scramble to make arrangements literally overnight with little support if they were “essential” workers without the luxury of staying home.
There were several things that the teacher just couldn’t get to and the families were literally told to introduce them over the summer break.
My children are five years apart, so my teen and 8-year-old were no longer playmates, just constantly irritated by one another. It impacted their relationship for sure. My eldest had it the roughest socially at that time, due to missing out on normal interaction and feeling isolated at a critical time. She even started a new school and graduated “virtually.”
JR Valrey: Upon returning to school for the ’22-’23 school year, what were some of the issues that you and your children were concerned about?
Terez McCall: They returned part time in 2021. The children got back to the classroom and it was very awkward, not just due to the challenge of restoring our usual routine, but due to how behind they were in math. There were several things that the teacher just couldn’t get to and the families were literally told to introduce them over the summer break.
Of course, returning the next semester, that gap wasn’t fully bridged and my elementary child went from enjoying math to absolutely hating it, in part because it was like a self-taught type situation – with little prep or materials outside of the online app, which could only be logged into around school times so it was not available on weekends, for example.
I’m thankful my daughter’s teacher referred us to Khan Academy, which helped a ton, but I had to figure out where the class was compared to Khan Academy, which wasn’t organized based on her grade. There doesn’t seem to be any analogous tool from OUSD, and it was eye opening because my child learned a few concepts before her class.
Editor’s note: According to Wikipedia: “Khan Academy is an American non-profit educational organization created in 2008 by Sal Khan. Its goal is creating a set of online tools that help educate students. The organization produces short lessons in the form of videos … All resources are available for free to users of the website and application.”
It was also hard to get my child to sit for another hour or two AFTER the school day, before finishing homework, to be educated by another screen.
“Normal” OUSD was already broken.
Thankfully, my children seemed to adjust socially and were thrilled to be back in a classroom with friends and peers, but I’m sure that’s not the case with all students. I’m not sure what’s in place to assist with that, beyond discipline.
JR Valrey: Now that the first full semester of going back to school after the lockdowns is complete, what do you think it will take to return to normalcy, if that’s even an option?
Terez McCall: I don’t believe there is a normal to return to. This lockdown situation just highlighted and exacerbated existing issues that I’ve seen as an OUSD parent – like taking tests or doing hours of coursework online, for example, which doesn’t work for all students. The tech gaps exist within different households.
I think OUSD has done a good job of putting computers and hotspots in children’s hands, but how do they ensure that they are actually serving these families? It would be good if someone at the district level is examining ways to address this, but I’m not super hopeful since their focus seems to be on the budget and state oversight.
“Normal” OUSD was already broken. Now there is an opportunity to improve some of that in spite of the specter of ongoing COVID outbreaks and looming shutdowns.
JR Valrey: Were you concerned that the OUSD was trying to coerce students into getting vaccinated although the world knows that the vaccinations do not prevent transmission or the spread of COVID?
Terez McCall: Absolutely. This is still an issue. Again, the “science” and messaging around this one specifically has been ALL over the place.
With the major push to vaccinate indiscriminately, and the waiver option removed, I felt families were ostracized and told to prepare several times for their children to be removed from school if they are not vaccinated. Even for vaccinated families, OUSD has made direct calls and sent dozens of emails about the vaccine, including after our school dealt with an outbreak in a classroom that was about 90% vaccinated.
Even now, parents cannot assist in the classroom, attend field trips or be cleared as a parent helper on campus without proof of vaccination.
My kids have come home with flyers and coloring books promoting vaccination. There have been clinics on campus, and I’ve been approached at pickup and given vaccination info, even though we don’t need it. At one point parents were informed that their older children could consent to the vaccine without parent permission.
It’s great that this is available on campus for those who want it, but the pressure is unnerving. It also leads to other children and staff ostracizing those who aren’t vaccinated or boosted, no matter the reason.
JR Valrey: Has OUSD been communicating effectively to students and parents about the state of the district and the new policies to be enacted to combat COVID?
Terez McCall: There is info out there but communication is limited. Each school has a safety plan you can research, but it’s apparently the district’s responsibility to notify families. We are constantly on alert, with children being sent home with rapid tests on every break. We still get email notifications – much fewer than before since the district changed how they share info about COVID cases, which is important to many families.
There was absolutely NO instruction planned for children who missed school due to illness or quarantine!
Initially, families were notified about all cases in the school, which led to multiple emails DAILY about possible exposure. Then, probably because that was overwhelming, they determined it was only important to share that info if the case was within the child’s primary classroom and if the person tested and was considered contagious within the school week.
Very confusing, based on what we’ve been told about how the virus is passed and how long one could be asymptomatic – if it truly is airborne, it could be passed from class or in hallways, lunchroom, etc., and someone could test negative or not feel sick for the first seven to 10 days!
The mask policy has been confusing as well. At first it was required, then recommended, then required again but not strictly enforced. At some point, it was said that if you were vaccinated you weren’t required to wear a mask or quarantine. I’m not sure what the status is now; I haven’t heard any update.
In the beginning, each time there was an outbreak and my child tested negative, she had to stay home for about a week. There was absolutely NO instruction planned for children who missed school due to illness or quarantine! They were just expected to show back up and jump in with everyone else. This could happen multiple times each semester and families of course were asked not to send sick children to school – but with no contingency plan.
Some things that might help reduce transmission could be smaller class sizes, focused nutrition, exercise, outdoor hand-washing stations, etc., but that’s not likely to be implemented across the board.
JR Valrey: The World Economic Forum and the Bill Gates Foundation were just working on a “hypothetical situation” in 2025 where a lockdown may be necessary. Do you think the OUSD is in a better position now to serve students in a lockdown, after the first lockdown?
Terez McCall: I would hope so, but I have no idea. The response to pandemics and other emergencies by OUSD seemed haphazard as a parent, but I suppose they’ve got experience now for the next time. We’ve been warned there will be future pandemics, and another shutdown, it seems, is possible, now that it has already occurred worldwide.
JR Valrey: Where do you think that the OUSD needs to put more focus to overcome the deficiencies that were developed by the students in the lockdowns?
Terez McCall: This is a great question and I’m not an educator so I don’t feel equipped to say. I have more questions than suggestions to implement. I think one concern I have is just how varied the curriculum is from school to school, even within OUSD. What should a child understand before finishing one grade, and how is it measured? Students should not just pass a standardized test, but have a true understanding and apply comprehension skills!
What is in place for kids who did fall behind, if a family can’t afford private tutoring to catch them up?
I know that public education is not geared toward this, but if the district focus was to improve and ensure children’s understanding, it could improve test performance as a byproduct!
Also, what is in place for kids who did fall behind, if a family can’t afford private tutoring to catch them up? A big concern is parents not knowing what their child doesn’t know, unless they get them independently assessed. A child going from one school to another shouldn’t have a complete shock either in how far behind or ahead the new class is, but I’ve seen this several times. I believe many teachers are doing their best, and we’ve had some phenomenal Black and Brown teachers in OUSD, but they can only do so much.
Now that COVID is a reality, what is the plan for children who miss school? That should be something handled at the administrative level or something because teachers may not even know the situation before the office does, and the district is supposed to be tracking cases.
For our family, math was a big issue. So much was missed during the 2020 school year, and it’s not my strong point, so I did my best with my memory (the old school way) because despite many efforts and hours on YouTube or Khan Academy, my brain wasn’t absorbing the convoluted “new math.” It really pisses me off because it seems like more work and could be a helpful tool if kids don’t get it the traditional way. But there should be an option!
Some deficiencies created by the pandemic aren’t visible, such as mental health issues that children are fighting through silently. It doesn’t seem the district has many resources unless youth are acting out or have a special needs plan in place, which doesn’t fit every scenario.
I reached out for help and my daughter’s school shared an online list of counselors. I called three and did online intakes just to be told it would cost me from $40 to $60 an hour “sliding scale rate,” which is out of pocket. This was while waiting for care through my HMO, who basically told us if it’s so urgent, I can just drop my kid at the ER?!
Of course we know school nurses and counselors are mostly a thing of the past, so I doubt if OUSD is aware of the lasting mental health impacts to our students and families. If they are, they haven’t communicated a plan to help.
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.