‘It Was Already Hard For Us’: Oakland REACH’s Toni Baker on How the Pandemic Sparked Her Journey to Parent Advocacy

Toni Rochelle Baker with 6-year-old Tatum and 9-year-old Talia (Courtesy of Toni Rochelle Baker)

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Special Report: This is one in a series of articles, galleries and interviews looking back at two years of COVID-related learning disruptions, taking stock at what’s been lost — and where we go from here. Follow our coverage, and see our full archive of testimonials, right here

To mark 24 months since schools shut down because of COVID-19, The 74 spoke with parents, educators, researchers and students across the U.S. We are running some of these interviews in their entirety to give complete accounts of where we’ve been and where some think we’re going. 

On leave from her job at Kaiser Permanente and trying to adjust to remote school with her two children, Toni Rochelle Baker of Oakland, California, found a new calling in the early months of the pandemic. When parent advocacy group Oakland REACH asked her to become a parent liaison, she thought, “I know what I’m scared of and what I’m facing over here, so let me help wherever I can,” she told The 74. 

In early March, philanthropist McKenzie Scott donated $3 million to Oakland REACH to expand its work on literacy and math tutoring programs. 

In a January interview, Baker spoke about her kindergartner’s disappointment with virtual kindergarten, losing her best friend to COVID-19 and the importance of cherishing “the little things.”

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: Feb. 14 was 700 days since most schools began closing. That number even took us by surprise. What’s your initial reaction to it?

Toni Rochelle Baker: ​​Wow, this really happened. At first, I thought it’s going to be like two weeks. My thought was, “I’m kind of happy we get to stay home. The world gets to shut down. I need a little break.” What’s a break to a mother? We don’t get to have sick days.

What was the moment you realized everything changed? What were you doing before and after?

My kitchen, my dining room table had turned into a school. I had two kids at the table with computers doing virtual learning and I had no idea what that meant. They told us to sign on to some Zoom that I’ve never heard of before. All three of us were at the table because at that time I was working from home. I thought we’re all going to just sit at the table and do our work. Then I realized we’re sitting there and there are 25 other students on Zoom in kindergarten. It just got real. 

Toni Baker’s children, Talia and Tatum Turner, at home during remote learning in the 2020-21 school year. (Toni Rochelle Baker)

What decisions do you remember having to make in the first weeks after schools closed?

I was in shock. We were told we couldn’t leave our house. We shouldn’t be around family and friends. We should be isolated. I was happy at first because I needed the time to breathe, but on the flip side, I thought this doesn’t feel so friendly. I’m a people person. I’m used to being around people and being outside and enjoying nature. Now they’re telling us to be cautious. I thought, “Is the world coming to an end? Is this what it’s going to feel like?” It was scary and confusing.

They gave us curfews in our city and told us to stock up on food. I don’t live my life like that. I’m a single mother. I go grocery shopping when I can. We get what we need. I didn’t have a deep freezer. I didn’t have extra money just laying around to spend $300 on food. I didn’t have Wi-Fi at the time because I didn’t really need it. I have my phone and now I need Wi-Fi for three people.

What has been the darkest part of the pandemic for you?

My best friend, who is like my big sister, died from COVID. I talked to her three days before she went into the hospital, not even knowing that she was sick. She didn’t know she was sick. Then she goes into the hospital and passes away. I couldn’t go see her. I couldn’t go to the hospital.

Tell me about your children. How old are they?

Talia is 9, in the third grade, and Tatum is 6, and he’s in the first grade. [Before the pandemic], my daughter was already in elementary school and my son was in preschool. Every day, I would drop my daughter off at school and my son would be with me. There was a kindergarten class across the hall from her first grade class. My son, who wasn’t even going to that school,  would go get in the line with the kindergartners. y. He would fist bump the teacher. The teacher would say, “Give me a hug,” and he would literally go to her class every single morning, sit down at carpet time, snacktime and even do the worksheet activity. This is a true story. I didn’t know that God was setting it up for him. It got to the point where they put a picture of him on the wall. 

The following year when he was ready to go to kindergarten, I got a call from that teacher, and she said, “Oh my God. I got Tatum on my roster.” I was so excited because they already had a bond. But he never got to go to in-person kindergarten because the pandemic happened. He already had a relationship with the teacher before the world shut down, so he was able to maneuver through kindergarten. But I never imagined not being able to walk my son to kindergarten. Those are the most valuable years of life. 

What broke my heart was for him to say, “Mommy, I hate school. I hate kindergarten. I want to go back to preschool.” That hit me, and it hit me hard. He already had this perfect picture in his mind about kindergarten. It was like he was saying, “Wait, you didn’t tell me I was going to be on the computer.” He didn’t understand. I didn’t understand. It broke my heart because the other kids didn’t even have what he had — that relationship. 

Did you consider holding him out of kindergarten? A lot of parents did.

Absolutely not. My children are just like me — social butterflies. I’m in love with my kids, but my kids were on my last nerves during the pandemic. Those four walls just weren’t enough.

How did you get through the tough times? Who did you rely on?

I was just relying on God. I was getting ready to see his face. Outside of God, I had Oakland REACH. I had a support system. They gave us vouchers for food. They gave my kids free computers. They gave us Wi-Fi. They had these teachers — I don’t even know where they found these beautiful teachers with these loving hearts for these kids. There was a teacher who had a grandma’s touch and a mom’s heart, and she was just so warm. This is through a computer. I’ve never met this woman to this day in real life. I had the community of Oakland REACH behind me. I wouldn’t have made it without them.

I have been with them for a couple years. About two weeks before the pandemic, I was put on an administrative leave from work at Kaiser Permanente. They told me I was coming back, but then the world shut down. This parent-led group that’s like a family to me said, “We’ve got to put something in place for these families. Everybody is at home.” I said, “I’m willing to help. I know what I’m scared of and what I’m facing over here so let me help wherever I can.” When I first met this group, I told them if they ever had a position, to hire me because I love the work they do. I love the mission. I didn’t know the pandemic was going to open that door for me.

They created this hub and they needed family liaisons. I didn’t even know what that meant. I was teaching my kids, but I was bored as heck because I’m used to being a busybody. I started helping other families and other mothers, calling my friends and telling them about Oakland REACH. 

Describe a moment when you felt you were getting conflicting guidance or instructions.

The school didn’t even know what to do. They didn’t have a lesson plan. They said to log on to Zoom for an hour. That was it. Then you do these worksheets. You are your child’s first teacher. I do believe that. I read to my children, but [the school] is telling me I’ve got to be a kindergarten teacher and a first grade teacher and do my work. It just didn’t add up to me. Then not being able to be with friends and family because we didn’t know if we were going to infect each other or if we were sick — it was just scary. It was just me and my children, and it was lonely. 

Your children changed schools last year. What led you to make that decision?

My son got to finish the end of kindergarten. I was hesitant on sending them back to school, but their mental state was so bad. They needed to go back, be with people and feel some type of routine. I didn’t know if I was making a good choice as a parent. I didn’t know if they were going to actually keep my baby safe. They were going to school in Oakland, but we live in Walnut Creek [about 16 miles away]. I’m working from home and I’m commuting to Oakland every day just so they can have some sanity. He got to graduate from kindergarten. It was a drive-through graduation. 

When this school year came around, COVID was just everywhere. The previous year, they did the COVID tests, they did the sanitizer, they did the masks, they did all these precautions. And when school started back the next semester, all of that went out the window. I let it slide the first two days of school, but by the third day, I’m like, “What’s going on? Where are the masks? We’re still in this stuff, and it’s worse now.” I had to make an executive decision as a parent. My kid’s class got exposed and I didn’t like the safety of it. I was worrying, like I had knots in my stomach. I had to remove my children from there. [My son’s] class went on quarantine for a week and then I just never took them back.

What do you feel hopeful about now?

I feel hopeful we can ascend through this. I wouldn’t say we know exactly what we’re dealing with, but we’re cautious now, we’re aware. My hope is to find some sense of normalcy. Maybe this is the new way of living, taking it day to day. Nothing is predictable. Hold onto the memories that we had in the good times because this is the new way of living. I don’t think this thing is going away any time soon. 

You don’t feel like the pandemic is ending?

We’re still in it, and a lot of people are still not taking it seriously. A lot of people are not taking precautions. A lot of people just still don’t care. I’ve lost several people to death, but people don’t want to get vaccinated. People don’t want to wear masks. People don’t want to have social distancing. People aren’t washing their hands. I can’t even go to the grocery store and taste a grape. We’ve been doing that since we were kids, eating the grapes and strawberries at the grocery store. You can’t go to Costco and get the samples. It’s the little things. 

What would you tell yourself 700 days ago, if you could go back in time, given what we know now? 

Cherish your time because time is something we’ll never get back. Smiling with my friend, looking at her actual smile without a mask, the hugs we exchanged without feeling like we were going to kill one another, holding hands and walking through the park —  it’s the little things for me. The playdates, the sleepovers, eating out. 

You work with a lot of parents. What do you think the public hasn’t understood about parents during these past two years?

The world is in a pandemic, but the educational system for Black and brown children was in a pandemic way before that. It was already hard for us. Our kids are not getting everything that they need. Trying to navigate education and figure out the best solution for these babies, the leaders of the future, is difficult. We don’t have tutors, we don’t have money, we don’t have resources, we don’t have people we could call. It’s just us, figuring it out day to day and trying to keep our babies alive, healthy and safe.

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