The following letter to the editor was written by Oakley resident Sherry Seat to the Oakley Union Elementary School District Board of Education and its administration.
Subject: Letter to the OUESD Board/Admin
I hope you are all enjoying a restful and deserved long weekend break. My thoughts here are probably too long to submit as a “public comment,” (although I have no objection)… mostly, I just wanted you to have them prior to Wednesday for consideration. I would have also cc:’d your applicants for the vacancy appointment, but the agenda doesn’t indicate who they are.
Thank you in advance for reading this, and hearing me out.
First of all, please let me express my sincere appreciation for the very hard work being done by all involved on behalf of the students in our community. I fully realize that the Board is essentially comprised of elected/appointed volunteers, and that the District admin & staff are always hard at work offline on huge to-do lists unseen and unrecognized by most of us. So I truly hope this is received by all readers in the spirit I am intending it.
I have two former OUESD students who are now teens in the LUHSD district, and my youngest is a 6th grader at O’Hara Park. He left his classroom at Laurel back in March, months before he was developmentally or academically ready to transition to middle school… and now soon he will be heading into the 7th grade. All from his bedroom. He has still never actually met his teachers. Just think for a moment, about how crazy that sounds. In his brief life, he’s already spent more hours on a Zoom screen than I ever have or will.
I’ve spent the last 11 years with this District, as an active parent participant and volunteer, and many of your teachers and staff are now part of our extended family. I’ve remained in close contact and spoken to many at length, and I do believe it is an injustice that the community is so vocal in misguidedly blaming our teachers for the current divide on whether or not it is time to return to in-person instruction. Your informed Board surely knows that even if there are union issues, the faces of the individual teachers in our District are by and large not the problem. There are of course extremes on both sides (those parents who view schools as their day care providers or insist that “teacher laziness” is to blame, and those teachers content at home or taking advantage of a reduced Zoom schedule for personal leisure or travel) – but the vast majority are concerned parents worrying about their kids’ educational, mental, and developmental needs… and overburdened teachers struggling with a system that’s inherently insufficient on its best day. Many teachers are also themselves, District parents. I know that you’ve seen and heard comments and received letters from parents sharing their difficulties and worries for their kids at home – we all have – to the point where we can almost become desensitized to the plight. Parents advocating for their kids’ right to an in-person instruction is now often being received as “anti-teacher.” Yet teachers have been asked to do more in the last year than they ever signed on for, or ever envisioned would be necessary to support their students, and they’ve stepped up. At the same time, parents’ very valid and distressing observations about the problems and dysfunctions their kids are experiencing after a year of being cut off from virtually everything in their lives are also legitimate. The side effects of isolation and the social & educational gaps which have been created by the Covid pandemic has created a VERY REAL secondary type of health pandemic in our children. We need to stop dismissing this as somehow being less important, and really listen to each other to find some common ground. It shouldn’t ever have become an either/or.
Nearly every teacher I’ve spoken with, wants to return to their classrooms, and ideally would prefer a regular full-time schedule. In the absence of that possibility today, however, their overwhelming concern seems to be… HOW would a hybrid return work under the current protocols for safety and without a loss of instructional time – and will we have sufficient support to achieve it? I look to you for these answers. Every effort should be made to reach consensus on, and approve, proposed union agreements. Every effort should be made to resolve any roadblocks that exist to a safe return to our campuses. Our kids – our teachers of the future – deserve every effort on their behalf. They don’t have a voice of their own.
OUESD has indeed been handcuffed since last spring by confusing and ever-changing county regulations, shelters-in-place, stay-at-home mandates, evolving statewide tier systems, shifting local health orders, recommendation modifications – and I can only imagine that the frustration in trying to keep up has been mind-spinning. Today, however, we are not waiting for anything but OUESD’s direction. K-6 are eligible for a return now. 7-8 will be eligible upon a return to red tier +5 days, a threshold which is expected to be reached in Contra Costa County within a matter of weeks. The latest guidelines and directives for safe returns to campuses were released by the state in late January. The state’s Covid19 ‘Safe Schools Hub’ site indicates that ~$5M was received by the District for extra funding support on necessary Covid-related modifications, for use this year. Other Districts in our region are in motion toward hybrid instruction, or are already back in classrooms. Absent your clear communications, explanations and direction, I have seen that the community continues to feel left in the dark and angry that “more isn’t being done.” They don’t know who or what to be angry at, and they are blaming teachers. The longer we continue with a “wait and see” approach, the more we are driving impassioned positions, more friction and finger-pointing in the community, and bigger transitional challenges needing to be overcome. Prior to Covid, teacher satisfaction/retention was already falling – and if educators continue to be villainized, and if they lack parental and admin support, we will eventually lose the best of them. This entire dynamic will ultimately diminish the quality of the education provided, and that hurts our kids. We owe them better.
I believe OUESD needs to make it an immediate priority to do whatever is necessary to offer a return to in-person instruction to those families who are ready to go back. This includes ensuring that stay-at-home options are available for those teachers and families who are not ready. All members of the community have spent nearly a year debating and vacillating and weighing their own personal health risks and exposure concerns, and all positions and perspectives are valid. Some will not feel comfortable until all teachers who desire a vaccine can receive one (which I hope the state will immediately prioritize). Some frankly, may never feel comfortable. But the very significant and proven declining mental health and academic success of our children is just as, if not more so, important to many other families. ALL stakeholders who are eligible to teach, or to learn, via in-person instruction, should now be provided the option to do so, and given the choice. The data agrees. The science agrees. The CDC agrees. The state agrees. The county agrees.
There are questions needing answers. The long overdue survey/declaration we are still waiting for is NOT premature – it is absolutely necessary. How else will the District know what is needed to be accomplished and put into place, if they don’t even know the population of students they should anticipate will need serving on their sites? Parents have not been asked about this in many months – and in many cases, we are not the same parents you were speaking to 6 months ago. The students you are servicing are also not the same students you were talking about last year. Our kids were in a different place last spring, last summer, last fall, this winter. 336 days since classrooms went dark, with no clear horizon, has deteriorated things further as more time has passed, and has created newer and bigger issues in many families. Many students who were doing well early on, now are not. The inadequacies of long-term distance learning for this age group can’t be overcome, even by the most able and dedicated teachers. That isn’t a criticism, it’s a reality. Nobody could have predicted the duration of this situation, and there’s still no real way to predict what lies ahead. Many families will need extra support and resources going forward. And I believe the longer things continue without in-person instruction being offered to those families who need it most, the further behind and the harder things will be for everybody concerned, when and if things finally do eventually “normally” resume. To my knowledge, no collective task force remains active and no avenue for ongoing reciprocal dialogue exists. If you are not surveying your teachers and your parents, what information and data are you using and relying on to make decisions?
With LUHSD now expected to open their classrooms to hybrid plans this year, what consideration or collaboration exists given that the boundaries of both districts overlap the same population? If older siblings return to classrooms, this will have a significant impact on younger siblings of working families who rely on coordinating the schedules of all of their children being home together, which may substantially impact the number of families who can opt in to attending school (in both districts) in person.
The January 20, 2021, “Safe Return Plan” which is posted on the District’s website (CPP) and the information included in the materials in this week’s meeting agenda packet, remains silent as to the actual status of prepared safety plans specific to OUESD and its sites. Similarly, the specifics of any proposed hybrid schedule have not been publicly evaluated in months. When can that discussion and information be expected?
What are the issues associated with equitable access for safety and functional preparedness at all sites in the District (older schools vs. newer) and how are those issues being addressed?
Do you need, and are you seeking, additional support from the City? County? Are you collaborating with your neighboring LEAs who are more ahead in their planning stages?
Every district in CA has unique demographics and challenges and funding availability, and things often can’t be compared. The complexities involved are far more significant than most of us are familiar with. And I fully appreciate that this is complicated and grinding work, which will ultimately result in a plan that will satisfy nobody completely. But the longer we wait to get started, to try creatively forming and implementing plans and facilitating our return to classrooms, the more difficult the challenges will be. We need tangible and communicated progress forward. Everyone involved deserves a firm reopen readiness plan with options, timeframes, guidelines, and specifics. People need to be able to (and will) opt out of returning to campus right away. But equally important are those who are ready to opt IN, and making sure our schools are ready when that moment comes.
And if, after exhausting all real ideas and possibilities for OUESD, the position is that the logistical challenges are too great to overcome this year, and that it would be less disruptive to remain in distance learning until summer, and it would be more successful to focus all energy and resources on a FIRM reopening for 2021-2022…. that needs to be determined and expressed as well. But parents deserve this information and thoughtful reasoning with a full picture, and they will want to know that every rock was overturned by those dedicated to our kids’ success, before deciding that they will remain at home for another 5 months until July.
My own average (no special needs, no ESL, etc.) students are old enough to stay home alone and engage in classes independently, and they have every available environmental advantage and resource for DL. They are actively supported and set up in our home to participate within the best possible conditions for success. We are just plain lucky. So if *my kids* are struggling, I know I can only begin to imagine what other families are dealing with in their homes. I’m not trying to speak for everyone, but I’m writing on behalf of all today who are waiting and wondering what’s ahead for OUESD.
Thank you again for taking the time to listen, and for continuing to tackle the challenges on your very heavy and thankless plates. And a heartfelt thank you to your teachers, who many of us know are truly going above and beyond this year for your students and doing the best they can with the difficult situation they’ve been handed. We look forward to hearing more about the plans for our District.
Upcoming OUESD School Board Meeting
- Date: February 17, 2021 at 4:00 pm
- To attend https://ouesd.webex.com/ouesd/onstage/g.php?MTID=e661ced120f04c4d54a6aaf098a9078de
- Event number: 187 819 4401
- Event password: oakleyPublic
- Comment by email to: firstname.lastname@example.org, one hour prior to the start of the meeting. Please note in the title of the email “Public Comment” and which agenda item, if any, the comment addresses. All submitted comments that are within the District’s jurisdiction will be read aloud at the meeting, up to a three-minute limit (approximately 450 words) per individual.