As I struggled trying to figure out how to host a Zoom meeting for the first time, the two 10th graders whom I was trying to interview sent me a link to a meeting that they would host.
Once logged in, I asked the students how school was going so far in 2022. Ximena Santana, a sophomore at MetWest High School, told me that there were about five kids in each of her classes.
“We aren’t learning,” she lamented.
Her MetWest classmate, Ayleen Serrano, agreed.
Across the Oakland Unified School District, students are out sick. Staff are out sick too, and there aren’t enough substitute teachers to fill the gaps in the classroom.
While Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell had a bullet point about attendance in her presentation to the School Board this week, she gave no update on attendance. However, she did share that the district was aware of 800 positive cases among students, and 120 positive cases among staff.
It should come as no surprise that in a global pandemic, OUSD staff and students don’t all feel safe at their schools.
On Friday night, the Twitter account @ousdstudentstrike announced that after meeting with the district, they are calling for a student strike starting Tuesday, January 18.
The students have listed three demands for the district to meet; currently, the district has met two of them. “This isn’t gonna stop any time soon unless they give us not one, not two, but all three demands,” Serrano said.
The tweet read: “We understand that there is a COVID test shortage, however, students will strike starting Tuesday, January 18th, because schools are still not safe without COVID testing. We are not upset at the district but we need more safety.”
An OUSD Student-led Action
Santana and Serrano are part of a group of MetWest students who started an online petition last week demanding that the district address their safety concerns. A week after the petition originally started circulating, over 1,200 students have signed the petition.
The petition demands N95 masks for all students, expanded COVID testing, and outdoor dining spaces. The petition also says that if those demands are not met by January 17, students will not show up to school starting on Tuesday, January 18.
Last Friday, over 500 teachers called in sick over similar safety demands.
The student petition also calls for a return to distance learning if the district refuses to address the safety concerns, but that is an unlikely option due to the nature of public school funding, which comes from the state.
Distance learning was allowed previously because of a statewide waiver from Governor Gavin Newsom, but the state legislature effectively sunsetted that waiver last year.
OUSD students have already begun their own direct action as of Thursday, January 13, when they organized a “sickout.” There was already no school scheduled on Friday or Monday.
‘We won’t back down, we’re gonna keep fighting til we get what we want,” Santana said.
When the Alameda County Department of Public Health first declared shelter in place on March 16, 2020, there were 93 COVID cases a day in the county.
More than 21 months later, when OUSD students returned to school from winter break on January 3, 2022, there was an average of over 15,000 cases per day.
In between those two dates, OUSD received over $270 million dollars in additional COVID-relief funding from the state and federal governments. The district also received laptops and hotspots from the CEO of Twitter in 2020.
While there has been both time and funding, it took a teacher sickout and the threat of a student walkout for the district to order masks and outdoor dining supplies for students, some say.
Megan Bumpus, a 5th grade teacher at Reach Academy who had been co-chairing the Oakland Education Association’s safety bargaining team, says that the teachers’ union had been trying to negotiate a safety agreement with district leadership since September 2021.
She described that process as “frustrating” and “fruitless,” but she is certain that the direct action tactics recently employed by staff and students prompted several moves made by the district in the past week.
Last Thursday, after the district learned of the staff sickout and the student petition, the district signed a Memorandum of Understanding with OEA President Keith Brown on safety issues like extending COVID quarantine leave through the end of the school year, and weekly testing. All OUSD staff were also given January 14th as a Wellness Day.
This past Tuesday, the district announced that they have ordered 200,000 KN95 masks for students as well as outdoor dining supplies.
“Some of the masks, they’ve had them all this time,” Bumpus conceded, referring to masks already distributed to staff. “They just now ordered the ones for the students.”
One OUSD School’s Example
MetWest, which was a product of OUSD’s new small autonomous schools policy two decades ago, is a high school physically located on two different campuses on opposite ends of Lake Merritt.
Santana and Serrano attend school at the site that is co-located on the Westlake Middle School campus. It is called the Ericka Huggins campus, named after the former Director of the Black Panther Party’s Oakland Community School.
The students say that their “outside dining area” consists of broken benches that are a safety hazard.
There is also an indoor “student lounge” where they could eat, but that is just part of a classroom.
Instead of staying on campus, Santana and Serrano cross a busy stretch of Harrison Street to eat lunch at an upscale supermarket’s outdoor dining area. Other MetWest students eat on the lawn of a church next door to their school. Neither site is an option on rainy days.
MetWest is also a school site where students were not given COVID antigen rapid tests to take home before the winter break, according to students.
According to a district email sent to parents and guardians, the district sent home antigen tests before the winter break: “41,000 at-home tests were provided to students and staff before the break; everyone is advised to test before coming back to school.”
Bumpus was not surprised to hear that administrators would deny students access to the tests. “I know that at some school sites that was definitely the case,” she said. “Every school is fending for themselves.”
And to be fair, OUSD may actually be doing better than some other school districts with regards to mitigating the COVID pandemic. Across the Bay in San Francisco for example, there hadn’t been a plan to give students antigen tests to take home over the winter break, and staff had not been given high-quality masks.
During the school board meeting on Wednesday evening, Chief Systems and Services Officer Preston Thomas announced that masks for high school students had arrived and were being distributed to school sites. He said that the rest of the student masks are expected by the weekend.
Previously on Monday, the district had claimed that the supplies for the covered outdoor spaces had been ordered “last summer,” but pointed to supply chain issues for the lack of their existence on OUSD campuses.
Perhaps not coincidentally, some of those structures began being installed at some OUSD schools this week.
As for COVID testing at school sites, the student-led petition asks for twice a week PCR and antigen rapid tests for everyone on school campuses.
According to the district in a statement, “As far as testing goes, like we have been doing since last year, we have testing available to students at ten hubs across the District. We are also doing weekly pooled testing at elementary schools, and have bi-weekly drop-in testing for our secondary schools. We are already meeting, or are in the process of meeting, most of the demands noted in this petition. And we will continue to work towards fulfilling the rest in the coming weeks.”
Either way, some students will continue to organize. When asked what motivated her to move from complaining to organizing, Serrano said, “ This isn’t just for us, but all generations coming after us. It’s for everyone.”