OUSD students on verge of strike over COVID-19 measures
on January 17, 2022
With more than 800 student cases of COVID-19 in Oakland schools, students have threatened to go on strike this week unless the district does more to keep them and their teachers safe.
Students petitioned the district last week for KN95/N95 masks for every student, twice-weekly coronavirus testing and more outdoor spaces where they can eat when it rains. They plan to stay home this week and strike outside district headquarters on Friday if their demands aren’t met this week, according to the petition circulating online.
In support of the students’ actions, hundreds of Oakland Unified School District teachers held a “sickout” on Thursday, refusing to hold classes in protest of what they described as the district’s inability to take protective measures to slow the spread of the virus.
“The impetus was definitely that we had a high number of students absent,” said Tamara Henry, a math coach at Garfield Elementary.
She said the district conducted pool testing, in which 25 students who show no symptoms are tested in one batch. Henry said COVID-19 turned up in 10 out of 18 pools and with only about half the students being swabbed.
“So it just felt like there was a very high level of COVID at our school,” she said. “And yet, when we kept reaching out to the district, we kept being told no for all of the requests that we asked for, such as KN95 masks.”
Henry joined about 500 of the district’s 2,300 teachers who called out sick on Thursday, an action that was not authorized by the Oakland Education Association, according to a report in The Oaklandside. Teachers also held a sickout when classes resumed after the winter break and absenteeism was high among students. The district has urged teachers to remain in the classroom.
“Unauthorized sickouts, especially on short notice, create unnecessary challenges for families who still need to work and may not have easy access to child care,” district spokesman John Sasaki said in a news release.
In an email, Sasaki added that nothing has changed from the district’s point of view since the first sickout held by teachers on Jan 7.
According to the district, more than 60,000 masks have been delivered to staff and 200,000 more masks have been ordered for students. Last week, the district agreed to give staff more sick days for COVID-19 leave.
According to the district’s coronavirus dashboard, there were 803 student cases and 51 staff cases in the week of Jan. 10.
The district has established 10 testing sites, biweekly drop-in testing for secondary schools and weekly pooled testing for elementary schools. It also provides information about where students and staff can get tested and vaccinated on its website.
In September, the school board voted to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for students ages 12 and older, giving them until the end of January to comply. California also is requiring students to be vaccinated, beginning the first semester after a pediatric vaccine receives full authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. Vaccines for children younger than 16 currently only have emergency authorization.
Alameda County’s Public Health Department reports this week that about 80% of children ages 12 to 15 are fully vaccinated, but only about half of those under 12 are. More than 190,000 COVID-19 cases have been reported in the county, which saw a dramatic rise in cases with the new year and the introduction of the highly contagious omicron variant.
While omicron tends to be milder than previous forms of the disease, it has increased the number of hospitalizations, overwhelming health care centers and raising concerns particularly for those who are not vaccinated.
“I know that many teachers and parents have concerns about the omicron variant,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a Jan. 7 media briefing. “Sadly, we are seeing the rates of hospitalizations increasing for children zero to 4, children who are not yet currently eligible for COVID 19 vaccination.”
She added, “We are still learning more about the severity of Omicron in children, and whether these increases we are seeing in hospitalization reflect a greater burden of disease in the community or the lower rates of vaccination for these children under age 18.”
Henry said that at Garfield, 160 students, about a third of the total enrollment, were absent one day last week. She said that in some Oakland schools, there are classrooms without air filters and there is not enough staff for regular pool testing.
“They really need to check to those schools,” she said, “get in the schools and see what’s happening on the ground, so that we can problem-solve most effectively.”
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