An Oakland School Teacher – On the Pandemic Frontlines

The first few months of this school year were exhausting and demoralizing for educators, as staffing shortages and the COVID Delta variant impacted our schools. The politicians at all levels pushed for schools to reopen, proclaiming that this was vital for students’ academic progress and emotional well-being. It is absolutely true that students are in need of extra academic and emotional support following the lockdown. It is also true that poor and working-class students and their families bore the brunt of the impact of the lock-downs, as they suffered through distance learning with completely inadequate resources and support. But the politicians aren’t sending students back to school to support their educational needs or their emotional well-being. In reality, the push for in-person learning is about “babysitting” students so that their parents can return to work to keep the economy going and the profits rolling in for the rich. Given the drastic cuts to public education over the last few decades, especially to school counselors and nurses, the newfound concern for students’ emotional health rings hollow.

As our schools re-opened, the government bragged about all the funds it spent to support education. The reality was a different story. Regular COVID testing, contact tracing, proper ventilation, sufficient staffing, and the provision of masks and equipment for outdoor eating were inadequate at best and nonexistent at worst. Where I teach, in Oakland, California, many teachers organized and protested for better safety measures in our schools throughout the fall semester. And then, exactly what we had warned about happened: a new variant (Omicron) swept across the globe and COVID cases spiked dramatically.

At the end of our winter break, as Omicron spread across the country, I reached out to each co-worker at my school site. I learned that we had six staff members who were sick with COVID. My principal said there would be enough non-teaching staff to replace all the missing teachers, but if one more person got sick, we would need outside staffing support. While some said that COVID felt like a minor cold, others reported that they had never been so sick in their lives.
On the first day back to school on January 3rd, out of 400 students, 108 were absent. Ten days later, 28% of our school was absent each day, and the numbers were rising. The messaging from the mainstream media and the politicians is misleading. Yes, some students are experiencing minor symptoms, but others, including those who have been vaccinated, are very ill. A colleague’s student coughed up blood and had to be rushed to the hospital. One of my students, an eager learner, has been out for more than ten days; his symptoms persist, and I fear he has long-term COVID.

As schools experienced severe staffing shortages and a tidal wave ofstudent absences, teachers and students grew increasingly desperate. Meanwhile, district officials patted themselves on the back for distributing 41,000 take-home tests before winter break. In reality, the tests were distributed haphazardly, just one day before the break began, such that several schools were unable to give them out to students and families. In addition, research showed that surgical masks were not effective against the Omicron variant, but these were the only masks the district had in stock at school sites on January 3rd. And without informing families, district officials quietly eliminated the quarantine protocol. In the past, whenever there were three epidemiologically linked cases in one classroom, that classroom went to ten days of distance learning to stop the spread of COVID. Now, no matter how many cases occur in any particular classroom, there is no threshold to quarantine the class.

Teachers’ anger boiled over into two days of sick-outs across the district, with more than a dozen schools participating. These wildcat actions were unsanctioned by the union, and arose out of the organizing and agency of rank-and-file educators across the district. At the same time, outraged students wrote a petition demanding regular testing, KN95/N95 masks for all students, and safe outdoor dining; more than 1,200 students signed it. Students stated that if the demands could not be met immediately, they wanted a temporary return to distance-learning. They gave the district until January 18 to meet their demands, at which point they initiated a one week strike.

Students and staff are right to be outraged at the lack of safety provisions in our schools. Our society is awash in wealth. Students shouldn’t have to beg for proper masks and regular COVID tests. But in a system that puts profits over people, this is exactly what has happened. Those who run the system have made one thing clear: they will keep schools and businesses open, regardless of the cost in human lives. Even if the hospitals are overflowing and we don’t know all the negative effects of long-term COVID on young people, this system will continue running with as few safety measures as possible.

In response to the unsafe conditions in our schools, the teachers at my site voted to participate in an unauthorized “sick out” on January 18, in solidarity with the student strike. Teachers at two other schools decided to join. Our staff spent much of their weekend contacting each family to inform them of our plans and hear their concerns about COVID safety. Only four students came to school the day of the strike, as our families stood in solidarity with the student strike and with teachers who were fighting for safer conditions.

Following the gathering outside of our schools, we decorated our cars with slogans and then drove to the Alameda County Department of Public Health (ACDPH) for the start of our car caravan. The ACDPH is the agency that has determined the changing guidelines around COVID safety, such as ending the three-case threshold for classroom quarantine. We passed out flyers to the public, and then joined a car caravan with the other schools to drive through East Oakland and downtown Oakland, past City Hall and school district offices, chanting the students’ demands and the teachers’ support for Oakland students. 

We are determined to keep our community safe. The student strike, and the teachers’ work actions in Oakland, have drawn national media attention and put pressure on district officials, who failed to implement the necessary safety measures in spite of months of safety bargaining with the teachers’ union. 

All over the country, students and teachers are organizing and striking for safety. Unlike what goes on behind the closed doors of collective bargaining, the actions in the streets put the problems squarely in the public eye, which has yielded results. We and other teachers and students around the country are doing exactly what needs to be done if we want safe schools. We have the power – if we organize our forces and take to the streets – to make this a reality.