Tunisia’s Story: One family’s experience with distance learning

As our community and the nation faces both the pandemic and the massive protests against police brutality demanding real and deep change, meaningful milestones continue to take place. Graduation celebrations moved online and the last day of school came and went with little notice. In just a couple of short months another milestone is ahead, school will be back in session but what “school” will look like is very uncertain. We know that our current system is designed to benefit some and fail many, and this is only deepening in these unprecedented times. At GO, we’re continuing to advocate for bold, dramatic change.

Against this backdrop, I spoke with Oakland native, parent, and community advocate Tunisia Owens about what her and her daughter’s experience has been with distance learning so far. 

At GO Public Schools, our work is centered on lifting the voices of Oakland parents. I can’t think of anyone in Oakland that I respect more in that regard. Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I am originally from Oakland. I grew up in Oakland and attended Oakland public schools before leaving for college. I attended Spelman College, which is a Historically Black College for women and received a bachelor’s degree in political science and economics while I was there. I went to graduate school at Princeton University and received a joint masters in public policy and urban and regional planning. Then I came back to the Bay Area after being a diplomat where I attended law school at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. I have long been an advocate for community change and community economic development. I’m also a parent and my child currently attends an Oakland public school. 

As an OUSD parent, can you describe your experience with distance learning during the pandemic? 
I have found that my daughter’s school has been very responsive to the parents. Our principal at the school has a “coffee and tea chat” every Monday for parents to talk about distance learning. There are also opportunities to engage with school therapists. I’ve found that since distance learning began it’s a challenge for all parents for sure, but at my daughter’s school her teacher sends out a memo every Sunday night that lets you know what the expectations are for the week. Her teacher has been pretty flexible with letting parents know what the expectations of students are via email or via text. They have a Zoom class on Mondays and Wednesdays and a small group meeting every day with a different set of kids so they aren’t in that large group and they can feel comfortable and confident in discussing their work and getting help from their teacher. Additionally, the school had a tutoring program that was a pilot that the PTA supported for kids who were not testing as well for the standardized tests. When distance learning started, that tutoring program actually offered complimentary tutoring sessions to kids.. So my daughter was able to get some one on one tutoring with a professional tutor as well. 

Do you think the distance learning impacted her ability to learn? 
I would be remiss if I didn’t say it has impacted her because just like everyone else you have to create a new normal, recreate a schedule and it’s difficult to remain focused. It’s difficult for adults to remain focused in this type of environment so it’s certainly difficult for a child who is accustomed to being able to get up and move around, exercise, do all of those things. Her school has been active about sending resources to parents like workouts that you can do indoors or outside, what kinds of tools you can use inside your home. But it’s a challenge and I recognize that I am an educated person but I’m also a single parent. I don’t know what it’s like for people who don’t have the resources that I have, which is a support network of family and a ton of education. So yes, it’s impacted both of us. 

Given how active you are in our community, what are you hearing from other parents, friends, and community members about their experience with distance learning?
I would say that there’s quite a range of experiences and this depends on the individual school, the community you live in and it’s also based on the resources you have and the age of your children. Even at our family’s school, Redwood Heights Elementary School, another parent mentioned how different his experience was because he has a young kindergartner. My daughter is in the 5th grade so she is a little more independent and she already knows how to write. So it was a lot easier to transition her into distance learning than it might be for younger kids. I also imagine it is incredibly challenging for families with multiple children of different ages. For example, parents who have a kindergartner and a middle schooler and high schooler likely have very different experiences with each child. 

If you could wave a magic wand and change three things about distance learning, what would they be? 
At the district level, I would send out resources on a regular basis to parents and ensure that parents and kids have access to internet hotspots and technology. 

There’s a high level of expectation placed upon parents and not all parents have the capacity and not all students have families that can support them. I’m not sure what’s going on with kids who are in foster care. I’m not sure what’s going on with students who are homeless. I’m not sure how the district is supporting those students. So if I could wave a magic wand, I would offer resources now and for the summer so that kids are not having that summer slide. We know that kids lose a lot in terms of reading over the summer and math. With libraries and rec centers being closed, resources that parents like myself who may be single parents or lower-income parents, those resources that we depend on are no longer an option. So it’s about finding ways that we could provide those resources to families who really need them. 

We need to figure out some ways to prepare our kids a little bit better for the unknown. As my daughter is moving from elementary to middle school, she’s asking me questions that I can’t answer. So let’s put information out on the news, have some press releases and release information that is really helpful as we’re thinking about plans for the upcoming few months or even the next year. 

Thank you to Tunisia for taking the time to speak with us. 

At GO, we bring parents, like Tunisia, together to advocate for changes. At a time when so many decisions about next year are up in the air, we’ve surveyed almost 5,000 parents across Oakland to make sure their voice is heard. Look for our #SchoolAfterCOVID survey report launch to see what families are demanding. 

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