Militant Journalism

Oakland students fight for COVID safety in schools

On Jan. 21, striking students in the Oakland Unified School District held a public town hall to address the urgent COVID safety needs of school communities. Less than a week later, the Oakland Education Association and the OUSD came to a tentative agreement in support of all of the students’ demands.

The students’ organizing efforts belong to a string of several other OUSD demonstrations since the beginning of the new year, starting with hundreds of teachers throughout Oakland striking to protest the lack of reasonable COVID safety plans for returning to in-person education at the height of the Omicron surge in the United States. 

Earlier that morning, OUSD student strike leaders hosted an online call to publicly discuss their organizing developments with over 200 participants. Many of the students who commented called in from humbly attended classrooms where a teacher helped set up the zoom meeting stream. One classroom full of kindergarten students said thank you to the student strike organizers. During the call, students and teachers shared their thoughts and experiences of attending school while testing positive for COVID and the difficulties of navigating increasingly empty classrooms during the Omicron surge.

A senior from Oakland High School testified: “Testing got canceled on Thursday. We haven’t been tested in two weeks. Kids keep leaving. Seniors are still here, because we have to do our senior projects.” A junior at Fremont High School said: “They only provided one mask. It’s not good enough. You guys want us to be safe, but I feel like we should have better equipment. Teachers can only do so much. They’re really helpful, but the district has to come and help us also, not just depend on teachers all the time.”

Throughout the discussion on the lack of reasonable and effective COVID safety plans among the various schools and the ramifications of mismanagement and miscommunication, students also pushed for organizing a stronger student movement to win safety in schools. Student leaders circulated a Google form, inviting more students to join the daily organizing meetings.

A junior at Oakland High School called on their fellow students to continue speaking out and stressed the “need to come in solidarity with our teachers. … It’s our health.”

At a Jan. 12 OUSD school board meeting, students led by the All City Council Student Unions, alongside many teachers and parents, had spoken out to urge a better COVID safety response. Community organizations such as Bay Area Parent Leadership Action Network Plan, Black Organizing Project, and many others also demanded an end to neighborhood school closures and consolidations in under-resourced communities. In addition to the massive challenges introduced by the Omicron surge, the communities of the many Oakland schools serving students from low-income families have been battling years of budget cuts to essential public school resources.

The next day, approximately 9,000 OUSD students participated in a sickout in the midst of circulating a public petition among themselves. Addressing the leaders in OUSD, over 1,200 students signed in agreement of the following:

“We [students] demand OUSD to shift from in-person learning to online learning.

“UNLESS YOU Make It Safe:

  • We demand KN95/N95 Masks in schools for every student
  • 2x a week PCR and Rapid Tests for everyone on campus
  • More outdoor spaces to eat safely when it rains”

Not all schools in OUSD had met all three demands by the petition’s deadline, so student organizers committed to strike. Beginning Jan. 18, many students stayed home and requested that teachers support the strike by providing remote learning options like posting work online. Besides the student strike absences, many students had already missed school for several weeks due to testing positive for COVID or living with family members who tested positive for COVID. 

On Jan. 26, the organizing efforts for the community’s COVID safety demands paid off. The student organizers declared a pause to the strike due to the tentative agreement between OUSD and OEA wherein all three student demands will be met. 

Featured photo: “Oakland student organizers announce victory with the tentative agreement between OUSD and the Oakland teachers’ union, OEA” (Twitter).

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