Oakland high school students prepare to ‘boycott’ COVID safety

Rapidly rising COVID cases among students and staff, increasingly empty classrooms, and fears of contracting the omicron variant have prompted some Oakland students to threaten to boycott school next week unless that the Oakland Unified School District provides increased security measures.

What started as a group brainstorm by students at a small Oakland school turned into a strike campaign supported by more than a thousand young Oaklanders, garnering national attention. Students from all over the country organized similar actions.

Their demands? Enough KN95 masks for each student, PCR and rapid tests twice a week, and outdoor equipment like tables and umbrellas in each school so students can stay safe and dry during mealtimes.

“The only way for us to stop this is if they give us what we want. Until we actually have it in our hands,” said MetWest sophomore Ayleen Serrano. High School “We will no longer fall into the trap of empty promises.”

The students sent their petition to Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell and school board principals late last week, with a deadline of Monday, January 17. With their demands currently unmet, the students plan to stay home from school beginning Tuesday, January 18, and will picket the downtown district office on Friday, January 21.

Thousands of OUSD students and teachers returned to school Jan. 3 after winter break, just as omicron caused an increase in COVID-19 cases in Oakland and across the country. The district reported nearly 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 among students and staff in the first week of school, more than it reported in the entire fall semester. According to Serrano, some classes at MetWest High had only several students because many had been out with COVID or had been exposed and were quarantined at home.

Together with his classmates, Serrano began thinking about what they could do to slow the spread, and they decided to start a petition for more safety measures and a boycott of the school if that didn’t work.

“We’re not doing this just to skip school. We do this for our safety,” said Nikayla Dean, a sophomore at MetWest who also helped start the petition. “Teachers have to come here and teach us and they have to go home. If one of us gets COVID, we all have to go home with the people in our house. This is not only for our safety, but that of others. »

Responding to requests could be tricky

OUSD officials said two of the students’ demands – KN95 masks and outdoor catering equipment – are already in progress. But the one-week deadline is unlikely to be met due to global supply chain and demand issues, which have caused delays.

“We have been ordering supplies for new covered eating areas at dozens of schools, including new tables and shade structures, since in some cases last summer,” OUSD said in a statement. press release issued in response to the students’ letter.

This week, OUSD received a donation of 10,000 masks for high school students from local restaurant owner Euge Lee, and on January 13, a shipment of 200,000 KN95 masks arrived and schools began distributing them to students across all grades. levels. There are approximately 34,000 students enrolled at OUSD.

At a school board meeting Jan. 12, district systems and services manager Preston Thomas said OUSD had placed orders for KN95 masks for students after they returned from winter vacation. Serrano and Dean, both 15, said that was exactly the problem and wished getting high-quality KN95 masks for students had been a priority earlier in the school year.

Increasing the frequency of testing has also been difficult for OUSD. Currently, the district sends testers to classrooms with confirmed positive cases, offers voluntary testing twice a month in middle and high schools, and operates 10 additional testing sites. But with positive cases in almost every school in the district, testers are at their limits.

At Wednesday’s meeting, several students also commented on how school has been over the past two weeks.

“Now that we have returned from the break, the classrooms are empty due to the increasing number of cases. Students at my school, as well as myself, are worried about their safety and their education,” said Vida Mendoza, a 10th grader at the Life Academy of Health and Bioscience, who had COVID over the summer vacation. winter and missed the first week of school. “While I was in quarantine, I was more worried about the impact on my studies, when I should have been worried about my recovery. Students across the district feel the same way.

Could distance learning be an option?

The student petition also asks the district to resume remote learning if it cannot provide personal protective equipment, outdoor dining spaces and increased testing by the Jan. 17 deadline. Some teachers, including those who planned an “illness” on January 7, said a temporary return to distance learning would make it easier to keep all their students on track and cause less disruption for students who are home sick or quarantined. .

Serrano, the MetWest student, added that returning to distance learning until district supplies arrive can be a way to stem the spread of COVID.

“If it takes a week, that week there will be more cases. We just think it’s not safe to be at school until we take the security measures we need,” she said.

The MetWest students originally intended their petition to represent only their school, but decided to share it across the district. It collected over 1,200 signatures from OUSD students. Credit: Amir Aziz

A higher number of staff absences strained schools, but most were able to stay open. Last week, teacher absences hovered around 250 a day across the district, and on Friday hit 500 when some teachers planned an “illness” and deliberately called in sick in protest.

At Wednesday’s school board meeting, Superintendent Johnson-Trammell said decisions to close a school, grade level or classroom would be made on a case-by-case basis. But before a closure decision can be made, the district assesses the number of campus employees available to cover classes, and then the number of central office employees available. If both options are exhausted, only then will OUSD decide to close a school.

Teachers’ illness on January 7 prompted 12 schools to send notices to families warning them not to bring their children to school that day because there would not be enough teachers to teach them. On January 13, another illness reportedly caused nine schools to close for the day. Some charter schools in Oakland, including Oakland School for the Arts, the Lighthouse Community Public Schools network which operates two schools in East Oakland, and Bay Area Technology School, have all had to close or switch to distance learning for some time. after winter. rupture and increase in COVID cases.

Sam Davis, who represents District 1 on the school board, met with the students Monday to discuss their concerns. Davis, who has a son at Oakland Technical High School, said he’s worried about what students could lose if schools return to distance learning.

“I think we need to listen to what public health experts are advising us at the moment. They still say that the isolation and academic loss of the shutdown and distance learning is even more concerning, at this point, than the danger of getting infected, given that we have vaccines and treatments,” did he declare. “We have to listen [students’] requests, and try to make it safe enough for students to feel they can be safe on campus.

State law is another reason why OUSD cannot close. Oakland Unified and all school districts in California receive state funding based on in-person student attendance. In 2020 and 2021, the legislature allowed them to continue receiving funding while operating remotely, but that allocation expired last year. In order to continue to receive funding if a school must close, there are several hurdles, including obtaining approval from state and county education departments, creating an independent study plan and proof that they have no more options for covering the courses.

Many students, like Deric Chau, a junior at Skyline High School, prefer in-person learning to distance learning.

“The social aspect of learning is removed. It was like people were getting on Zoom just to be there and get their presence,” he said. “With the in-person school, we actually learn something and are more engaged.”

Still, 16-year-old Chau believes more could be done in schools to allay pupils’ concerns. He signed the students’ petition and also helped organize a student-led illness on January 13, which coincided with another teachers’ illness. He and other students plan to speak with their professors so they can align and strengthen their causes. Solidarity, Chau said, is the way to change things.

Activism is not new to young people in Oakland. In November, hundreds of students walked out of Oakland Technical High School to protest OUSD’s handling of reports of sexual assault and harassment, leading the district to re-examine its policies and re-educate supplements on sex education for high school students. Two years ago, OUSD students organized with the Black Organizing Project to disband the school’s police department, and a student-led protest took 15,000 to the streets in June 2020 .

“Young people have power and can make things happen,” Chau said. “To come together and have unity, you can make change happen faster.”

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