Distance learning, births, jail protest: your weekly Oakland news roundup

News and notes from our Oakland newsletter

Oakland Managing Editor Jacob Simas here, saying hello halfway into our second month of sheltering in place. By now, some aspects of life in quarantine have become disturbingly routine. In our house, face masks, video chats, and constant handwashing feel like second nature.

If only I could say the same about “distance learning.”

Oakland Managing Editor Jacob Simas

As the father of two OUSD students, a first grader and a fourth grader, staying on top of our kids’ online schooling has been my greatest challenge during this pandemic. Virtual classroom meetings get missed. Daily worksheets go undone. Time spent learning is replaced by time spent free playing or, yes, watching movies.

It isn’t for lack of trying (on my part or theirs), and it isn’t for lack of effort by their teachers, who’ve mostly been outstanding. It’s just that all of us—parents, teachers, and kids—are struggling to find new ways to work together.


Maybe there’s a silver lining here: as we all struggle to adapt, distance learning is laying bare deep inequities in education. As this goes on, we’ll be forced to address some fundamental questions:

  • In a digital world, can equity in education exist when 20% of students can’t access the internet at home?
  • Come next fall, can we expect schools to stagger classes without the extra funding they’ll need to handle additional classrooms—and to basically reinvent the school day?
  • Can we really ask small children to socially distance themselves without also recommitting to full-time school nurses, counselors, and janitorial staff at every school site?

As a parent of two OUSD kids, I’m especially interested in hearing your thoughts on how you’d like to see us cover educational equity in Oakland. We welcome your feedback about what you’d us to dig into on this beat and others, and how you’d like to get involved. In the coming weeks and months, we’ll be asking these important questions and more as we grow our Education Equity news beat and continue to work toward the late-spring launch of our standalone website and newsroom.

In the meantime, you can continue to find our Oakland coronavirus reporting here at Berkeleyside, and don’t miss News Editor Darwin BondGraham’s excellent weekly news roundup below.

Sincerely,
Jacob Simas, Managing Editor

Public health and environmental impacts

TaNefer Camara, a lactation consultant at Highland Hospital, is navigating the COVID crisis as both an Oakland birth worker and as a mom expecting her fourth child. Photo: Pete Rosos

What to expect when you’re expecting a baby during the COVID-19 crisis: Contributor Sara Kassabian looks closely at how the pandemic is disrupting the birthing experience and the work of Oakland midwives, doulas, and obstetricians.

Reproductive health workers are having to replace in-person visits with pregnant women with virtual appointments, navigating equipment shortages and new hospital rules that can make childbirth lonelier and riskier. Lactation consultants and doulas have started offering late-night breastfeeding video consults to help new mothers struggling with postpartum isolation and quarantine.

More mothers are choosing to discharge early from hospitals against medical advice. In some cases, they don’t show up at all, opting to give birth at home rather than risk COVID-19 exposure at a hospital.

Cover your face: Everyone in Alameda County is now required to wear a face mask when shopping, riding public transit, visiting a business or a hospital, and in other settings. We recommend you read the order.


Arts and community

Like many Oakland businesses, Marcus Books, which describes itself as the oldest independent Black bookstore in the country, is hurting. Photo: Marcus Books

Read more books! A pillar of Oakland’s intellectual scene, Marcus Books in North Oakland, which specializes in Black literature and history, has been selling literature to The Town since the 1980s. Like all bookstores, it’s been forced to close its doors temporarily. A fundraiser to benefit the store is underway. You can also order directly by phone.

Walden Pond Books, another local bookselling giant, has taken a big financial hit since customers can no longer browse and buy. Cassie Curatolo, granddaughter of Walden’s owner, has set up a fundraiser to help the shop pay its bills. They’re also selling books online.


Other bookstores eager for your web business include East Bay Booksellers, E.M. Wolfman (which is celebrating 6 years in business downtown and “bumping” books online), Spectator Books on Piedmont Avenue, A Great Good Place for Books in Montclair, and Bibliomania. We’re collecting more local fundraisers here.

“Slow streets”: How’d you feel about Oakland’s “slow streets” initiative? Seventy-four miles of city roadway were temporarily closed to through traffic, and traffic cones and signs were set up to make the streets more walkable. Was it a visionary innovation to make lemonade from our COVID-19 shutdown lemons? Or an overhyped annoyance? We’re not the only ones wondering: the city wants your feedback.


City government and policing

From a protest led by Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, demanding more more be done to protect people in Santa Rita Jail from coronavirus. Photo: Darwin BondGraham

COVID-19 in the jail: The detainee population inside Santa Rita Jail has been reduced by 801 since March 1 due to collective efforts by the sheriff, district attorney, public defender, and courts—bringing the total population to 1,811 as of Friday. Some believe more people can and should be released.

On Thursday, about 100 cars encircled the Alameda County administration building and caused a noontime traffic jam outside the sheriff’s office in Oakland, all part of a protest led by Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice. Their demand: that more be done to protect people in the jail from COVID-19.

We spoke by phone with Dylan Hyche, an Oakland resident and current inmate at Santa Rita Jail, as the protest was happening.

“I tested positive for COVID,” Hyche told us. He and others suffering from the virus, he said, have been placed alone in cells as part of the sheriff’s plan to prevent further transmission.

“There’s already an outbreak in here,” he said, describing other inmates as “frantic” and deputies as avoiding interaction as much as possible.


“People don’t want to say they have symptoms because they’re afraid to be put in solitary,” he said.

Hyche also said that a nurse in the jail told him his immune system would “fight off” the virus. So far, he said he hasn’t received special medical attention, but that other inmates have been moved into the jail’s infirmary. (Photo: Darwin BondGraham)

There’s a hole in the budget: According to Oakland Budget Administrator Adam Benson, the city is about to take a financial hit amounting to $80 million over the next 14 months. That’s more than it costs to fully staff and operate all 25 of Oakland’s fire stations. Obviously, the city isn’t going to close down all of its fire stations, but painful cuts are on the horizon. We’ll be reporting more about this next week.

Crime is generally down: Rik Belew, a member of Open Oakland. which brings together “data geeks” of all kinds to address civic issues, has posted an interesting analysis of crime data under the COVID-19 shutdown.

Examining Oakland police data, Belew found that the level of crime has generally dropped since the county shelter-in-place order was instituted. Comparing the weeks before and after the shelter-in-place order to the same period of time last year, Belew also determined that the drop likely isn’t a seasonal trend that happens each year.

Belew told us he crunched the numbers after seeing people on the Nextdoor app posting all kinds of claims about crime. “This project’s purpose is to ground random stuff like that in an empirical, data-driven source,” he said.


Housing and homelessness

Alameda County and Berkeley are moving homeless people into hotels, including the Comfort Inn & Suites in Oakland. Photo: Google Street View

Hotels for unhoused Oaklanders: Will the East Bay end up like San Francisco where, last week, officials were unable to avoid an outbreak of COVID-19 from occurring at one of that city’s largest homeless shelters? More than 91 people were infected, a major setback to stopping the coronavirus spread in the Bay Area.

As we reported on Wednesday, after San Francisco’s outbreak, Alameda County and its nonprofit social services contractors rushed to move more homeless people into two East Oakland hotels. Among the people moved to the Comfort Inn by the Oakland Airport were a group of about 10 Berkeley residents who were showing symptoms of COVID-19. Berkeley officials say that none of them have tested positive as of Friday.

Meanwhile, critics say the state and county need to move faster to secure some of the thousands of empty hotel rooms in the region to safely house the homeless.

On Wednesday, a coalition of housing activists demanding a speedier process for filling hotels held a Zoom conference. Some called in from hotels in Oakland and Los Angeles. Delbra, an Oakland resident who has been homeless since 2014, said from her room: “You got all these thousands of hotels that are empty, but you got people on the streets that are hurting. We have no protection.”

Census champs: Oakland residents are responding to the 2020 Decennial Census at higher rates than in other cities. About 52% of Oaklanders are replying to the Census via phone, mail, or online. That’s better than San Francisco (49%) but not quite as good as Berkeley (57%). If you haven’t already, please fill out your Census form.

Correction: A previous version of this story said Marcus Books is located in West Oakland. It is located in North Oakland.   

Jacob Simas is managing editor of The Oaklandside. Email: jacob@berkeleyside.com.