Educators Propose Safety Precautions As OUSD Seeks To Reopen Some Preschools Next Week

A closeup of crayons and a child in the background coloring.
Image by Aaron Burden via Unsplash.

On Monday evening, during a Family Report Back Session on the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD)’s plan to reopen school sites, OUSD Chief Systems and Services Officer Preston Thomas said, “Across the state, while children are getting COVID-19, no children have, at this point, died of COVID-19.”

Thomas may be factually correct about the “across the state” part, but according to the Centers for Disease Control, some children have died after contracting the virus, and others have suffered serious complications that required hospitalization.

The CDC also says that in person schooling increases the risk of spreading COVID-19.

As infection and hospitalization rates continue to increase in Oakland, can parents really feel comfortable with the argument that ‘It hasn’t happened around here yet?’

Sure enough, many parents that participated in Monday’s meeting had questions and concerns about what steps the district was taking to ensure the health and safety of students, staff, families, and the larger Oakland community. 

OUSD announced their plans for the start of the 2020-2021 school year on July 10. The highly anticipated announcement was made just after 5pm on a Friday.

The district stated that starting August 10, distance learning will be conducted for “up to four weeks,” at which point in person learning would slowly be phased back in. What OUSD didn’t mention was that the district also plans to open pilot classrooms at six of their preschool sites next week on Monday, July 20.

There is one significant detail absent from those plans though: OUSD needs to successfully negotiate Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) with seven labor unions before school of any type can resume. While the unions are under contract, due to the change in working conditions, the two sides must renegotiate. The district gave itself just ten days to make that happen if they want to open the preschool classrooms, and four weeks if they want learning to resume in other classrooms in the fall. There are four days left before the planned start of preschool.

During the district’s Family Report Back meeting on July 13, Executive Director of Labor Relations Jenine Lindsey announced that OUSD had only met with two of the labor unions so far, and had no agreements in place with either. And while the district’s presentation showed that negotiations were supposed to have started earlier that day with the five other labor unions, according to Lindsey, they had not. The two labor unions that the district has met with are the Oakland Education Association (OEA) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 257. 

OEA represents all certificated school site staff like teachers, counselors, and nurses. Bargaining between OUSD and OEA started on July 9.

On Monday, July 13, the two sides met for two and a half hours to discuss the district’s counter proposal to the union’s initial proposal on safety. The next day, bargaining team members Kathryn Wilson and Jaja Malik provided an update to members.

Malik, a teacher at Community Day School, said that in an internal survey, 83% of OEA members had identified safety as their number one priority during negotiations. But according to Malik, “The district has not made any significant movement on their proposal for safety.”

For example, he reported that the OEA bargaining team has asked the district to provide three disposable masks per day for each staff and student, but the district countered with an offer of either one reusable mask or four disposable masks per month for staff. 

An image of an African American man wearing glasses on a Zoom call.
Oakland teacher Jaja Malik presents the second MOU bargaining update to OEA members on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. Screen capture from Zoom meeting.

Another example Malik gave was that OEA has asked for continuous testing for all staff, students, and family members, but OUSD would only commit to providing information on local testing locations. During the Monday night webinar, Thomas said that the district only plans to ask staff to “check in” and self-report whether or not they have symptoms.

On the subject of cleaning, the district is recommending deep cleaning school sites once a week, according to their presentation during the July 13 Family Report Back. Thomas also said, “Clearly, there’s gonna be the ongoing cleaning that would happen normally within school, but there’s this added level of sanitizing that we need to make sure that we’re doing.” Without specifying who would be doing the sanitizing, he suggested moving custodial staff around to different sites where needed at first, and then eventually filling vacant positions.

“We’re really concerned about this,” said Kathryn Wilson, a teacher at Esperanza Elementary School, during Tuesday’s update. “We would like very strong language to protect all of our members and students and all of our staff and to keep everybody really safe.” 

Malik also talked about the importance of air quality, noting that many classrooms, including his own, lack proper ventilation. He reported that OEA has asked that all windows be able to open and that the district provide air sanitizing machines as well. “I know at my school site, and probably at many other schools, this is a big issue,” he said, adding that, “It seems like the district is basically trying to take, like I said…the cheapest way out of providing safety.” 

Malik later added, “We are demanding more.”

A photo of surgical masks, hand sanitizer, and gloves
Some personal protective equipment including surgical masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer. Oakland Unified says it has plenty of PPE, but the teachers’ union says that the district’s current proposal in bargaining does not ensure the health and safety of students and staff. Photo by Tony Daquipa (not of OUSD’s PPE).

On Wednesday, July 15, OEA bargaining team members Tuwe Mehn and Maranatha Hosick-Farwell gave another update about what happened at the bargaining table on Tuesday.

Both Mehn and Hosick-Farwell are preschool teachers and OUSD parents, and most of their presentation focused on the district’s Early Childhood Education program.

They both expressed concern about the district’s push to reopen preschool classrooms on July 20. OUSD plans to open classrooms at United Nation Child Development Center (CDC), Bella Vista CDC, Highland CDC, International CDC, Manzanita CDC, and Lockwood CDC.

“Even though the district is proposing the reopening of these CDCs, OEA wants the district to ensure the safety of the children, staff, and families at these pilot sites, and they want to make sure that remains the number one priority,” Hosick-Farwell said. She added that she would not want to send her children into classrooms right now with the current state of the pandemic in Oakland. 

“Those children are all about touching,” she continued, referring to preschool students. “It’s all sensorial. They want to touch, they want to feel, they want to hug.”

When asked about who would clean the toys and other educational materials, Mehn responded, “That’s a great question, that’s something that we’re still negotiating.”

“Sometimes we didn’t have people coming in to clean classrooms as it is, and now we need extra cleaning to happen in our classrooms,” Hosick-Farwell added. “We need to make sure that we are in agreement with the district on safety before any sites reopen.”

“We want to make sure that our babies are safe,” Mehn said. “We want to make sure our teachers are safe. We want to make sure our families and communities are safe.”

Hosick-Farwell also noted that there is funding from the state at stake with regards to the preschools opening this summer, which explains the district’s push to open some classrooms next week, but Mehn questioned whether or not those funds were worth the risk.

“It’s important to open, it’s important to not lose the funding,” she conceded. “However, what’s more important, funding, lives? Which one is more important to you?”

Before concluding the presentation, Hosick-Farwell reminded everyone, “All conditions under which we start the school year have to be negotiated.”

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Tony Daquipa is a dad, essential bureaucrat, photographer, urban cyclist, union thug, wannabe stonemason, karaoke diva, grumpy old man, storyteller, and preserver of history.

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