The state of OUSD classrooms post-Covid

Works-In-Progress-Student-Performers-Madison-Park-Academy-Middle-School-by-Taiwo-1400x649, <strong>The state of OUSD classrooms post-Covid</strong>, Local News & Views News & Views
Taiwo’s class Works In Progress student performers at Madison Park Academy.

An interview with middle school teacher Taiwo Kujichagulia-Seitu

by Minister of Information JR Valrey, Oakland Bureau Chief 

A number of teachers throughout the country have complained about the state of public education, after Covid lockdowns, being in a more funereal state than the pre-Covid era, where Black students were already graduating at severely inadequate rates. Oakland teachers are no different and, just like many other school districts across the nation, in the Oakland Unified School District there is a teacher retention crisis. 

With Covid not going anywhere any time soon and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) on the rise, the health of Oakland’s students and teachers should be monitored and paramount, and precautions should be put in place to make school a safe environment in this new climate of bio-engineered viruses. 

The lockdowns that lasted nationally for over a year and a half starting in the Bay Area included the closing down of schools, which ultimately resulted in a social-mental health crisis for returning students, who were educated through devices in a process called distance learning. 

Taiwo Kujichagulia-Seitu is a middle school teacher and an active member of the teachers’ union Oakland Education Association. She was also very active throughout the lockdowns. 

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Taiwo currently teaches performing arts, which includes dance, drama, vocal music and West African drumming at Madison Park Academy Middle School. She is a third generation educator and has been teaching for 23 years. 

I wanted to talk with her about how the lockdowns have affected the student body that she works with, and I wanted her to compare her two decades experience teaching before the pandemic to what went on last semester, which was the first full semester that the students have been back to school since the lockdown began in mid-March 2020. Check out what Taiwo has to say about the state of Black youth in Oakland Unified. 

JR Valrey: How have lockdowns affected the performances of students now that they are in their first full year back?

Taiwo Kujichagulia-Seitu: Students are facing some unexpected challenges. Many students are experiencing social anxiety in levels I’d not seen before the pandemic. 

They spent nearly a year and a half in isolation where they did not have to interact socially with peers. That time in isolation was pivotal for students because instead of practicing social skills, they were in isolation communicating through devices. So they missed developing crucial skills that are an expected part of social life.

While this anxiety is not completely debilitating for most students, I have one student who has missed most of the first semester of school as a result of social anxiety. Several other students miss portions of class due to a need to go speak with a therapist – on site in many OUSD schools. Needless to say, the anxiety and the classes missed as a result have a huge negative impact on student learning.

JR Valrey: How does the district and teachers’ union plan to approach these new issues that the students acquired?

Taiwo Kujichagulia-Seitu: More counselors and case managers are being hired across the district. Case managers assist students who are experiencing challenges at home, or outside of school, that negatively impact student performance in school. Case managers connect students with resources and provide an extra layer of support for students who need it. 

JR Valrey: What was the mental health of students like before the lockdowns and after? How is the district planning to deal with this? Has having more mental health professionals helped in any significant way?

Taiwo Kujichagulia-Seitu: Mental health pre-Covid is too broad of a picture to accurately paint. I can say, however, more students are in need of mental health services since returning to school. Has it helped? Time will tell. 

I know that in my classes, students are able to leave to speak with a counselor, receive the help they need, and come back to class and continue working. However, my class is one out of the thousands in the district, so I cannot make any generalizations.

JR Valrey: What were some of the issues that the district and teachers union were working on prior to Covid, and how were those issues affected by the lockdowns?

Taiwo Kujichagulia-Seitu: Prior to Covid-19, we were working toward reduced class sizes, more protections for students receiving special education services, cost of living increases for teachers, smaller caseloads for school nurses and school psychologists. 

If anything, coming back from distance learning and seeing the needs our students have made the need for these changes even greater. Students need more individualized attention now. Many teachers moved out of California at the height of Covid-19 because the cost of living is too high. With RSV and the flu, students have more physical and mental health challenges now. The needs now are greater. 

JR Valrey: What is the biggest challenge facing teachers, students and parents in your opinion, that the Oakland Unified School District needs to tackle in this coming semester?

Taiwo Kujichagulia-Seitu: The biggest challenge facing teachers is teaching to a generation of students that, thanks to TikTok and other social media platforms, have extremely short attention spans and addictions to digital devices. 

For nearly a year and a half, the only contact many students had to the outside world was through a digital device. It became a source of communication and comfort. Now, many students are dependent on them. I’ve watched students in the same room communicate on a device rather than face to face. So teachers, in addition to navigating around the social-emotional stuff happening with students, are constantly working to hold students’ attention long enough to teach.

The biggest challenges facing students is getting re-acclimated to being in school. During Covid-19 there was a lot of leeway given to students regarding due dates and what being present in class looks like. Because teachers have no control of the home environment, as long as students logged into class – even if in the last five minutes – they were marked present. 

That has translated into some students feeling as though they will receive credit for being in class – even if only for five minutes – without participating or contributing to the learning process. There was a push during Covid-19 to universally pass everyone. I did not agree with that push because it set a bad precedent, allowing students to believe that they could do nothing and succeed. And it did set a bad precedent that we are now dealing with the ramifications of.

I believe the biggest challenge facing parents is knowing what their children need. Very few students are excelling academically, mentally, physically, emotionally and psychologically. I enrolled my children in the school where I teach because it affords me the opportunity to know what’s going on with them. 

I know the teachers my students are with during the school day. I can converse with them regarding my children when necessary. I know who the bullies and mean girls are. I’ve taught these children and I have relationships with their guardians as needed. 

I know the administration and have access to them when I see an issue that needs to be addressed, not just for my children, but the entire student body. That was a strategic choice I made to ensure that my children receive what they need academically, mentally, physically, emotionally and psychologically. 

Many parents, however, are not in the position to do so for their children. So keeping a pulse on what’s happening with their students can be challenging. I have students who tell me about things that they do not tell their parents. I have had to call a couple of parents when the information I’ve been told jeopardizes a student’s safety. 

As a working parent, I know how it feels to be exhausted at the end of the day, especially when you still have to prepare dinner, lunches for the next day, do hair, help with homework, do your own homework (if you are in school) etc. Nonetheless, I encourage all parents to talk to their children and listen without judgment. 

It’s amazing what children will tell you when they do not fear being judged and chastised. They are often waiting to tell someone what’s happening with them, so provide the opening. We know many young people are facing mental health crises. Listening compassionately, without judgement, can help prevent reckless decision making, addiction, self harm and suicide.

JR Valrey: How did distance learning work during the lockdowns, from a teacher perspective within the OUSD? Were the children learning effectively? Why are so many students still enrolled in computer learning?

Taiwo-Kujichagulia-Seitu-teaching-performing-arts-Madison-Park-Academy, <strong>The state of OUSD classrooms post-Covid</strong>, Local News & Views News & Views
Taiwo Kujichagulia-Seitu teaching her performing arts class to kids at Madison Park.

Taiwo Kujichagulia-Seitu: It didn’t work well. It was not ideal. We did the best we could with two weeks to prepare. Like most other teachers across the world, I had zero experience teaching online. Most students did not have devices at home to participate in online learning. Along the way, teachers devised ways to assist our students in experiencing some successes, but I would never choose to teach under those conditions again.

The children who are self-starters, who work well independently, and who often experience conflict in social situations with their peers did learn effectively. In fact, some students excelled. However, that profile did not fit the majority of our students. 

Coming out of the period of forced isolation, many students remain in computer learning for a few reasons. Some families moved to areas with a lower cost of living. Thus, students physically cannot return to their previous schools. Many students, due to social anxiety, have a fear of returning in person. Finally, many parents fear their children catching Covid while attending school, so they have them learn online instead.

JR Valrey: Should another lockdown come in the next two years like the World Economic Forum and Bill Gates Foundation predicted, do you think that the Oakland Unified School District is in a better position to serve the students than it was prior to the lockdowns?

Taiwo Kujichagulia-Seitu: I believe that most school districts are absolutely in a better position to serve students online than we were prior to Covid-19. At the very least, we have a very thorough understanding of all of the things that do not work. Some teachers were able to develop best practices in their online classes, and if school districts tap into that knowledge base, they can create a framework for successful pandemic driven online learning.

JR Valrey: How is teacher retention looking post-Covid lockdowns versus prior to the lockdowns? What are some of the biggest issues leading to teachers leaving the profession within OUSD?

Taiwo Kujichagulia-Seitu: It’s rough. Teacher retention was already an issue pre-Covid due to the high cost of living in the San Francisco Bay Area and teacher pay not keeping up with that cost of living. Since the pandemic, inflation is high, teacher pay has not seen significant increases and teachers deal with more stress at work. 

The level of violence in middle and high schools since Covid is higher than it was before. Students have forgotten what it means to be a student. Thus secondary teachers spend time reinforcing basic classroom expectations the way TK through third grade elementary school teachers do. As a result, less time is spent teaching content, and teachers find themselves in environments that mimic elementary schools or prison yards. 

I have questioned my life choices multiple times as a result of the stress of teaching. Due to the fact that I have been teaching for the past two decades, I’m able to navigate the curve balls thrown my way. However, many new teachers, without experience and support, are buckling under the pressure, and seasoned teachers are choosing to retire early or move to districts with higher pay.

JR Valrey: In relation to normalizing student life after the lockdowns, what is the teachers union working on?

Taiwo Kujichagulia-Seitu: I cannot completely answer that question, as I am specifically representing VAPA (visual and performing arts) teachers on our bargaining team. What I can say is that the VAPA team is working to ensure equitable access to visual and performing arts education for all students in OUSD. 

Students with access to visual and performing arts classes have an outlet at school that enables them to express themselves creatively. Many of these classes are the part of their learning day that some students look forward to the most. Unfortunately, access to high quality VAPA education is extremely inequitable across the district. 

Some schools have wonderful programs while others have none. Thus, we are bargaining to ensure that all students, no matter what OUSD school they attend, have the opportunity to study visual and performing arts the same way that every school offers classes in core subjects like math, science, history and English language arts.

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 and on Instagram.

This story was made possible by a grant from the National Association of Black Journalists.