News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

July 31, 2020

OUSD’s reopening plan puts everyone at risk. Teachers are fighting back.

By Andrea Passwater

Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) schools are scheduled to resume classes on August 10, and Oakland teachers say that the district’s plan to reopen endangers the entire community. OUSD is proposing the year begin with four weeks of remote learning. After that, the district would decide week by week whether to return to in-person learning.

According to guidelines issued by Governor Gavin Newsom, school districts can resume in-person instruction when their county has been off the state watch list for 14 days. To get removed, a county must have fewer than 100 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people. Alameda County currently has 113 cases per 100,000 people, leaving it barely on the watch list.

In Oakland, however, cases are at an all-time high—about 830 cases per 100,000 people. Infections are especially concentrated in the predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods of East Oakland and, due to health disparities caused by racism, people of color die from COVID at 2-6 times the rate white people do. Looking at COVID statistics just at the county and city level case mask these uneven virus dangers across Oakland, and that’s why they’re a poor metric for OUSD to use to make choices about reopening.

Because of OUSD’s years-long campaign to close schools in Black and brown neighborhoods and because teachers often can’t afford to live where they teach, many students and educators must travel across the city (often on public transportation) for in-person instruction. This means the only way to assure a safe reopening for students, families, and workers, teachers say, is for case rates to be near zero in every zip code. 

On July 9th, the Oakland Education Association (OEA), the union representing close to 3,000 educators in Oakland public schools, began bargaining with OUSD over what “Crisis Distance Learning” and a return to school buildings will look like. 

“They’re making all these claims to the public about how schools will reopen,” says Kehinde Salter, a performing arts teacher at Fremont High School and member of the OEA, “but none of this has been bargained with us.”

OEA is calling on the school board to keep schools closed until COVID-19 documented cases and positivity rates are “Near Zero” — defined as fewer than 10 cases per 100,000 people — in every zip code. They are also demanding OUSD provide detailed and adequate science-based testing for all students, families, and school staff, paid for and supervised by Alameda County’s Health Department.

In addition, OEA says, OUSD should develop clear protocols and procedures for physical distancing, maintaining safe and healthy facilities, and addressing possible COVID-19 cases at school sites. This includes providing adequate PPE to students and staff as well as proper ventilation. If any zip code in Oakland rises above 10 cases per 100,000 people, OEA wants OUSD to immediately halt all in-person instruction and revert to Crisis Distance Learning.

The negotiations began in early July and are entering into their fourth week, with the Oakland school board unable to agree to OEA’s safety demands.

“I feel like the district is not taking our safety needs seriously,” says Salter. “We’ve known about the risks of Coronavirus since March, but the district has been dragging its feet.”

The pandemic strains schools already operating under austerity

Even once cases have reached the “Near Zero” incidence that will allow schools to reopen, schools will still need better staffing to educate students safely and effectively. The district needs to reverse its dire shortage of substitute teachers to fill in for teachers who are sick, and to possibly help run additional classroom spaces needed for safe distancing. Schools also need more nurses to diagnose COVID symptoms early and quarantine those who are sick, and more janitorial staff to clean bathrooms and sanitize surfaces.

Oakland teachers, however, make some of the lowest teaching salaries in the county, and high rent prices make it difficult for Oakland teachers to live near the schools where they work. Because of this, OUSD has struggled with staff shortages and attrition. The low-pay and staffing shortage crisis extends to nurses; there is an estimated 1 nurse per roughly 1,300 students in OUSD. Most Oakland schools only have access to part-time nurses, who visit multiple schools each day for a few hours at a time—if they even have nurses at all.

OEA’s safety demands highlight the multitude of basic resources teachers and students have long done without. Many classrooms lack air conditioning units or other ways of circulating clean air. It’s common for students to share learning supplies such as writing implements and textbooks. Bathrooms lack hot water and, according to many teachers and students, haven’t been adequately stocked with soap and paper towels for years.

Some teachers also worry that state-mandated attendance reporting will incentivize parents to send students to school even if they feel sick. In the state of California, after 8 days of absences—even excused absences with a doctor’s note—teachers are required to generate a chronic absence letter. After 10 days, teachers must refer students to a case manager who will conduct a home visit. COVID-19 symptoms can persist for weeks, which would put many students who contracted the virus, or who were quarantining because a family member did, over the mandatory home visit threshold.

The fight for digital equality 

If schools cannot open safely, then classes will have to be conducted remotely. However, teachers say OUSD is also failing to provide the resources necessary for quality online instruction.

Currently, OUSD has announced that the first four weeks of the semester will be distance learning. After that, students may be asked to return to class on a week-to-week basis, depending on Alameda County COVID case counts—not the “Near Zero” levels of the virus in every Oakland zip code educators are asking for. This effectively means students could be distance learning one week and back in schools the next, without much prior notice for teachers or families.

This worries teachers, who say that online lessons take time to create, and without firm dates, they will be unable to plan. In contrast, teachers in Los Angeles and San Diego have already fought for and won a guarantee of online-only learning through the end of the fall semester in December.

The pandemic has revealed a crisis teachers have been aware of for a long time: California has a digital divide. Were California a sovereign nation, it would have the fifth largest economy in the world, just ahead of the United Kingdom. Yet across the state, in the shadow of many of the world’s most profitable companies and the billionaires who run them, one in five students do not have reliable internet access or a computer for every student in the household. In OUSD, that number is one in three. There is no plan from the district or the state to provide devices or wifi to students, even though they are critical to effective distance learning.

One Oakland teacher, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that when schools closed in spring, workers often—on unpaid overtime—took it upon themselves to safely deliver paper homework packets and PPE to students’ houses. In several instances, they collected test answers from students via phone call.

“Honestly,” the teacher said, “the internet should be provided for free to these students. To everyone. It’s essential for life right now.”

OUSD secured $12.5M in donations to provide computers for distance learning back in May, but the school board says it will be 8 weeks after the fall semester begins before they can distribute them.

These delays, teachers fear, will mean more and more students fall through the cracks. 

Teachers could strike for safety

While Trump pushes for schools to reopen in hopes of greasing the economy and improving his chances for reelection, a deadly virus rages through California and the nation. Teachers across the country are threatening to strike.

“The district never established the reality of this situation,” says Salter. “There’s a pandemic going on. This is not distance learning, it’s crisis learning.”

Oakland schools are set to begin classes on August 10, with teachers reporting back to work on August 5. OEA is currently asking OUSD to delay the first day of class until August 17, which will give teachers two full weeks to prepare online lessons and receive comprehensive training in distance learning, as well as more time for the district to distribute computers and internet access by the first day of school.

So far, OUSD has not budged, and the negotiations continue. In order for OEA and OUSD to be able to ratify an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) before classes begin, their respective bargaining teams will have to come to an agreement by early August. OEA requires one week to share finalized MOUs with teachers so that they can hold a vote on whether to sign.

When asked whether a strike was on the table, Salter replied that nothing had been decided yet. “But are we willing to strike for student safety, if it comes to that? Yes.”