Oakland: Report from the Classroom

I am an elementary school teacher in Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). We have been in school for 12 weeks and since there has not yet been a serious outbreak, people within our community have become somewhat complacent to the situation at hand. It’s understandable, I’m tired of it too, but I am a member of the Safety Bargaining Team for the Oakland Education Association (OEA), the Oakland teachers’ union, and we have to organize because our students deserve safe schools.

Students in my class have been out sick all year. I have had between three and ten absences every day. When a student gets sick, families have an option; the student can be tested for coronavirus, or the student can stay out of school for ten days. Families do not have easy access to coronavirus testing. OUSD has ten testing locations in the city, they are opened on different days every week, and are only open between the hours of 8:00 am and 4:00 pm. For working families who cannot yet read or speak English, and/or do not have an access to a vehicle, this is a huge barrier to accessible coronavirus testing.

The families’ choice means that if a child is sick, they can either go and have their child tested for coronavirus and if the test results are negative, they can return to school immediately. However, if they choose to not test their child for coronavirus, for whatever reason or barrier, students must stay out of school for ten days before returning to instruction. Optional testing for the coronavirus at school sites means there is no way of knowing if there was a case of coronavirus in the classroom, meaning students continue to get sick without any understanding of the cause.

Last week a student of mine developed symptoms (sore throat, cough, runny nose) and was sent home. I am committed to my students’ safety, and also trying to understand the nuances of OUSD’s testing and tracing system. When a child is sick, I call families individually and try to convince them to get tested. Many families are hesitant – they express reservations that the Covid test may hurt their child, they cite the inconveniences of location and hours, I also wonder if they fear there will be a financial or immigration cost. These are understandable fears, and OUSD’s lack of education around testing is leading to these misconceptions. When I call a family and they agree to test their child for the virus, I then send them testing locations, close to their homes, and often provide them with testing locations outside of OUSD, so that they can access testing on the weekend when they are not working.

When there’s a positive case in a classroom in OUSD, whether it was detected in or out of an OUSD facility, the district should provide PCR testing the following day for the entire class and outlying communities that are experiencing symptoms. When this happened to a co-worker of mine a month before, the district did not provide testing to her class. My principal told me PCR testing might be available for my class, and that my students’ families needed to sign a permission slip so their child could participate in the PCR testing. This meant that I had 24 hours to get 29 students’ families, who cannot yet read and cannot yet speak English, to sign a permission slip. It took many evening hours to call every family and convince them to sign. Several refused or did not answer the phone.

The following day, I was pleased to find that the district would be providing PCR testing for my class. Only 20 of my 29 students were present that day. My principal encouraged me to call the nine families whose kids were absent to try to get them to come to the school just for the PCR testing. Only one family picked up the phone, and only that one family came. Again, this meant that all of the students who were truly sick were never tested for coronavirus. 

At 8:30 AM, on Thursday morning, one week after the fist case of coronavirus was detected in my class, since I am masked, I tried to smile with my eyes, and keep my spirits up in front of the kids, as I walked my eight to ten year old students to their first coronavirus test, without their families, in front of all their peers. When we got to the testing site in the lobby, I found that the students would need to administer their own coronavirus tests. All of the research that the Safety Bargaining team has conducted around Covid testing, says the tests increase in validity if administered by a medical professional. Yet at one of the highest need public schools in California, our district deemed it appropriate that third graders and up would self-administer their own Covid test. 

Some students clutched my side as I and the medical technician encouraged them to stick a cotton swab up their nose, and rotate it ten times in both nostrils. Some of my students shook with fear. 

My students lost an hour of learning so that we could engage in the dysfunctional PCR testing of OUSD. At the end of the testing, I asked a medical technician when we would receive the results and she responded between three to five business days, completely invalidating the test results. Once again, with nine sick students absent, and not receiving coronavirus testing, it is clear to me that the district’s coronavirus testing and tracing policy is a sham. Our school district so far has refused to bargain in good faith for increased coronavirus testing, contract tracing, increased staffing and more facilities. Once again, our district, local and state governments, have turned their back on the people who most need help and healthcare.

My students who were sick were never tested for coronavirus, they eventually returned to school after 10 days, and our classroom was no longer deemed an outbreak. I will be at the Oakland Unified School District School Board meeting this coming Wednesday, November 17. I will be wearing red in support of education, and speaking up for my community. OUSD has Covid leave money to spare and that money should go directly in our public schools, providing weekly Covid testing to our students, accurately contact tracing cases, and improving facilities so that students can safely eat outdoors. Students deserve safe schools now.