Photo: Malia Johnson
Malia Johnson, a senior at Fremont High in Oakland Unified, works at on an assignment at home through distance learning in May.

Amid pandemic fears and distance learning challenges, school districts throughout the United States are finding ways to help as many high school seniors as they can do what they need to do to graduate this year. 

Oakland Unified has taken a dual approach to get students to the finish line focusing not only on overcoming academic hurdles but also on students’ social and emotional needs. 

Like all districts throughout the state, Oakland has been holding classes through distance learning. And, like most, it has shifted from issuing grades to assigning credit or no credit for each course during the closures. 

But to help seniors deal with academic challenges and lack of access to computer devices and the internet, Oakland also took a host of new steps, says Lucia Moritz, high school network superintendent. As the district finished the school year on Thursday, she said about 2,061 of the 2,370 seniors appeared to be on track to graduate before summer school, but that data was still being updated. About 278 seniors plan to make up credits through distance learning summer school to graduate with the class of 2020, she added.

The district has prioritized seniors for Chromebooks and WiFi access, necessary for distance learning. It distributed Chromebooks or WiFi hotspots to 453 seniors earlier this month.

But because access to technology is still limited, the school board temporarily reduced the district’s requirement that students earn a 2.0 Grade Point Average in core courses, including math and science, and a “capstone” senior project to graduate.

The district is adding “make up” courses, so students can repeat subjects they might have failed. This so-called “credit recovery,” can include online programs or condensed courses that enable them to earn the credits required to graduate. The district is offering some of these through after-school programs, as well as through summer school, which includes special options for students in alternative continuation high schools and for newcomer immigrants.

“It is likely students will be able to recover more total credits than in previous years,” Moritz said. 

All seniors with a D or F grade in courses required for graduation that they took before the pandemic or “no credit” assigned during school closures are encouraged to enroll in summer school, where they can take up to four classes instead of the usual two.

Oakland is also concerned with its students’ emotional needs that could present obstacles to their ability to graduate.

“People are under different levels of stress,” said Agnes Zapata, an English teacher and senior advisor at Fremont High. “At this moment, the socio-emotional help is more necessary than the academic help. Not that the academic help is not important — but if you’re not healthy, or you’re hungry or you’re scared — there’s no hope that you’re going to do any of the academic work.”

Zapata has been contacting students and their families to do “wellness checks.” The district’s teachers and counselors have also been reaching out to some families in different languages, if they are not fluent in English. The Oakland Education Association teachers’ union created a video explaining the value of doing these check-ins with students and families.

The district is continuing traditions such as recognition ceremonies for African American, Latino, Middle Eastern and Asian Pacific Islander students, but is holding them virtually. These ceremonies honor all students who achieved a 3.0 GPA or higher.

“It’s extremely important to infuse joy during this very uncertain time,” said Oakland Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell during a recent webinar for school leaders focused on meeting students’ social and emotional needs. Noting that some students are feeling anxious and unmotivated, she said the district is working to ensure that seniors who are on the cusp of graduating “can continue that trajectory.”

The district’s goal for this year is a senior graduation rate of 75.5% in four years, up from 72.3% last year.

Since schools closed, however, a few school board members have expressed concerns that dropout rates could increase due to the inability of some teachers to reach students because of lack of cell phones, internet connectivity, homelessness or other barriers. 

“We are always concerned about dropouts, especially students from special populations,” said Moritz, such as newcomer immigrants, foster youth and homeless students. “There will be some students who will struggle with distance learning, despite support offered. And losing their access to resources at school is a significant disruption…We also understand that some students may be taking on additional work responsibilities during this time.”

Some seniors are taking care of younger siblings, working to help support their families, and are worried about what will happen if their parents get sick or aren’t making enough money, said Zapata. 

Even with the help Oakland is trying to provide, some students have struggled with distance learning.

Fremont High senior Malia Johnson, 18, has a laptop, but said her home internet access is weak. She has had to work in the same room as her mother and brother, which was a problem when one of them was on a Zoom call. 

Johnson said teachers reduced course workloads during distance learning. But she will still earn a grade in her dual enrollment psychology class, which is offered through a partnership with Peralta Community College. 

“I have a lot of supporters,” Johnson said, explaining that she keeps in contact with her teachers, school counselor and mentors from the Upward Bound program at Mills College and the nonprofit Students Rising Above program. “If I need help, I’m going to text them. But I know some students may not want to bother the teacher. My friend, when she needs help, she doesn’t ask the teachers.”

Oakland High senior Denilson Garibo, 17, said sometimes it was hard for him to focus on assignments when he was working in the three-bedroom home he shares with nine other people, including his parents, siblings, “aunties” and cousins.

“Our teachers have to be understanding that not all of us have the same mental health right now or the same living conditions,” he said before classes ended. “So, our teachers need to understand we’re not going to be able to finish some of the work they’re giving on time or we’re just not in the right state of mind.”

Garibo, one of two student directors on the school board, helped to present a report to the board Wednesday that included student survey results. They showed many students had trouble with distance learning due to distractions at home, limited internet access, lack of motivation and even depression.

Despite the academic and emotional challenges, or maybe because of them, students said they were looking forward to graduation — whatever form that might take. 

Each high school has its own plan for senior activities, which include virtual celebrations from May 22 through June 5 and in-person celebrations later in the year. To help make the Skyline High celebration special, Oscar-award winning actor Tom Hanks, who graduated from the school in 1974, gave a commencement address to the seniors.

“Always understand that you have been chosen by fate to lead the way in whatever our post-pandemic world is going to be,” he said. “Make it a great one, would you? We’re all relying on you.”

In addition, the district is planning a citywide virtual graduation ceremony on June 6.

Johnson and Garibo are trying to stay optimistic. They will each take part in their school’s virtual graduations on June 5, with the hope of attending in-person graduations postponed until November or December.

“I’d rather walk the stage for the traditional graduation,” Garibo said. “But that is our last alternative and there’s nothing else we can do.”

Johnson, who is class valedictorian, said she has already recorded her speech, which will be part of the virtual graduation ceremony. 

“I tried to keep an inspirational theme because it’s kind of a bummer that our senior year was kind of ruined,” she said. “I tried to remind them that we had three other good years and we’re still getting a diploma. This situation is very unique and it’s not going to be forgotten. There are other memories we can make in the future to make up for the ones we weren’t able to make this year.”

Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the challenges facing other urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.

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