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OAKLAND — For some students, school began this year with no new backpacks, lunchboxes or even the typical back-to-school shopping for clothes. Instead, Oakland Unified students, like many across the state, sat in front of computers Monday for the first day of their academic year, some for less than an hour.

The first day back was supposed to be just about an hour of learning as the teachers union, Oakland Education Association, and school district continue negotiations on what distance-learning will look like this school year during the pandemic. But not all received the full hour of instruction.

Camila Lopez, 10, is a fourth-grader at the Spanish dual-immersion Manzanita SEED Elementary School, and was online with her class for around half an hour starting at 8:45 a.m. Monday. Her sister, Nicole, 8, also had a similar instruction time after she began at 9 a.m.

Camila told her classmates and teacher her name and what she liked to do for fun (drawing). But unlike the typical first-day icebreakers, Monday’s interaction was all online, with Camila in front of a computer camera sitting at a desk inside her home as her younger sister sat by and waited for her class to start.

Camila said it isn’t hard to do classes online, “But I would have preferred going to school,” she said. She especially misses her friends, recess and lunchtime, she said. English is her favorite subject. And she noted she has never met her teacher in person.

When asked if she went back-to-school shopping like years past, she said no. “We actually didn’t need it,” she said.

Their mom, Anel Macias, still took photos of the girls for their first day — but it was inside their home, as the girls sat behind their district-provided laptops.

Nicole sat at the kitchen table, swinging her legs, her teacher (“Maestra Nunez” as she introduced herself) said in Spanish, “We’re going to have fun this year.” The teacher, switching between Spanish and English, explained to her students that this year was going to be a little different as they couldn’t go back to school in person for now.

When asked if she thinks her daughters will learn the same this year, compared with years past, Macias said her daughters are smart, but this year is just going to be very different.

“I don’t want to be negative, but no — it’s going to affect them,” Macias said.

She spoke about how her youngest, Nicole, was sensitive about being on camera and how seeing her friends online would make her sad. Macias asked a school counselor if it would be OK if Nicole was not on camera. But on Monday, Nicole was on camera, a bit shy, but smiling and participating when needed. It was exciting for her, her mom said.

But Macias worries about the long-term effects on her kids. She said she hopes that the online-only instruction isn’t prolonged. “My only wish is everything ends quickly,” she said.

But the future is uncertain as the teachers union and district try to reach an agreement on how instruction should be handled. The union started with its “Strong Start Plan” Monday, which includes five hours of professional development and one-hour live interactions with students. During those sessions, teachers intend to check their wellness, communicate with their families about the distribution of technical materials and take daily attendance.

And until further notice, the union says teachers intend to do their teaching just the way they’ve been asking to, at least through Aug. 21.

The union has been pushing a plan that entails two full weeks of teacher prep time, a five-hour flexible workday and six hours of professional development led by administrators. The workday would include 90 minutes of “wellness time” for teachers as well as some physical activity.

The district is proposing one full week of prep time and four consecutive Wednesdays for a total of nine days, a seven-hour workday, and 17 hours of professional development.

Both the district and teachers union have been in negotiations for over four weeks. Although talks continued over the weekend, as of Monday, there was no agreement on the distance learning model.

The state requires districts to provide 180 days of instruction through distance learning — 230 minutes, or 3.8 hours a day, to students in first through third grade, and 240 minutes, or four hours, to students in fourth to 12th grade, as well as “daily live interaction” between students and teachers.

The district, on the other hand, wants elementary school teachers to put in 6.25 hours of daily instruction and secondary teachers and other certificated staff to work 6.5 hours.

“As it stands, we have proposed more time for teachers to do live instruction, while OEA is proposing less,” said Oakland Unified spokesperson John Sasaki on Monday. The district’s proposal is reflective of what families told them in a survey after going through distance learning in the spring, he said.

“They said they want more one on one instruction, more small group instruction and more large group interaction for their students,” Sasaki said.

He said the district has made some concessions in negotiations, such as “providing one out of five days with less live instruction time to allow for more professional development and time to take care of the non-instruction tasks our teachers have, and greater flexibility over the workday to allow teachers to create start/stop times that enable them to care for their children.”

It’s expected the district and union will meet again for bargaining Monday afternoon.

Check back for updates. 

Staff Writer Jon Kawamoto contributed to this story. 

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Author: Angela Ruggiero