group of people standing in rain with signs
Skyline High School teacher Harley Litzelman, left, stands on the picket line at La Escuelita Elementary School during the Oakland teachers' strike in February 2019. Litzelman wants Alameda County to sustain zero new cases of coronavirus for two weeks before school buildings reopen. Credit: Julian Peeples

As coronavirus cases in California began ticking upward in March, one Bay Area school district after another announced that they would be closing for a few weeks ahead of a potential outbreak. Teachers with Oakland Unified School District saw Berkeley and San Francisco announce closures on Thursday, March 12, and expected to get a similar call from OUSD the same day. 

When that call didn’t come, Divya Farias, a special education teacher at Coliseum College Prep Academy and an active member of the Oakland teachers union, heard her colleagues’ concerns loud and clear: “We should prepare to walk out if we’re asked to come back into the school building next week.”

Oakland superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell came out with a statement the next day, shuttering schools through the end of spring break. Oakland teachers decided they didn’t need to walk out after all, but “that sort of energy was there right away,” Farias said. 

Now, with fall semester about to start, Oakland teachers have been increasingly vocal about the conditions under which they’ll agree to return to physical classrooms. Harley Litzelman, a social science teacher at Skyline High School, has been leading the local wing of a national campaign urging teachers to refuse to return to campus until there have been no new coronavirus cases in their counties for 14 consecutive days. 

“I’m not calling for a strike. I’m calling for a continuing of robust distance learning,” he said. “We are not here to demand anything else but our safety and the safety of our kids and our students’ families.”

The Oakland Education Association teachers union, which includes teachers as well as school psychologists, nurses, and social workers, has been pushing a similar line: No reopening of schools until there have been few or no new cases for 14 days in Oakland.

“In Oakland, we have some high rates of COVID-19 in a lot of our neighborhoods serving our Black students, and the reason is because of systemic racism and a lack of access to quality healthcare,” Keith Brown, the president of OEA, said at a community roundtable earlier this month. “We need to determine that the risk is low enough to return.”

Still at the bargaining table

With less than two weeks before classes begin, the union is still embroiled in negotiations with the district over the labor contract for the upcoming year, which would spell out when school buildings might open for in-person learning. Earlier this month, OUSD proposed bringing some students back into the classroom after a four-week distant learning period. For many teachers, coming back into the building after a month seemed like an arbitrary timeline, not tied to a public health standard.

empty classroom
Paul Paradis’s social studies classroom sits empty at Skyline High School. Credit: courtesy Paul Paradis

“The fact that we would go back to school in this condition is insane,” said Paul Paradis, another Skyline teacher who has been working with Litzelman on the campaign. “It can’t look like this. It can’t even look like it did in March. It’s got to look better.”

On June 17, Governor Gavin Newsom told school districts to stick to virtual learning until their county has been off the state’s watch list for two weeks. The governor’s order gives OUSD a concrete metric for reopening, but Litzelman wants to continue putting pressure on the district.

Alameda County adds dozens of new coronavirus cases each day, with a high of 284 new cases on July 17. The county was placed on the state’s monitoring list on July 12 for having 122 cases per 100,000 residents. If that case rate drops below 100, the county could be removed from the state’s list and OUSD could reopen, while still adding a risky amount of new cases each day, Litzelman said. 

The Oakland teachers’ union has also endorsed Demand Safe Schools, a far-reaching national campaign that focuses not only on pandemic health concerns but also police in schools, eviction moratoriums, higher taxes on billionaires, and charter schools. In conjunction with that campaign’s “National Day of Resistance,” teachers and advocates in Oakland are planning a car caravan and rally on Monday, beginning at 4 p.m. at La Escuelita Elementary School at 10th Street and 2nd Avenue. 

Despite rifts at the negotiating table, OUSD is still planning to start classes on Aug. 10. Both sides still need to agree on how to reopen schools, and the length of instructional time and teacher planning time. The union has proposed teaching times that align with state law, ranging from 3-4 hours daily, depending on grade level. OUSD wants to increase instructional time to 3 1/2 hours for kindergarteners, and up to 4 hours and 45 minutes for fourth through 12th graders. Teachers are also bargaining for a shorter overall workday of 5 hours during distance learning, while the district wants to maintain a regular workday of 6 1/2 hours for teachers, which was standard prior to the pandemic.

“We certainly understand the concerns and we have concerns as well,” said school district spokesman John Sasaki. “We’re going to let the negotiations play out and go from there.”

Safety and learning: striking a balance

Some parents are beginning to wonder whether a return to school will even be feasible this year. 

Lori Poer, a Rockridge parent of two OUSD students, acknowledged that balancing safety with a desire to restart in-person learning puts parents in a difficult position.

“I don’t think there’s any clearly right or clearly wrong response. I’m just worried when I think about kids throughout Oakland, particularly low-income kids whose families don’t have the ability to stop working or pay a tutor to teach their kids indefinitely,” she said. “Opening too soon is not safe, but neither is delaying in-person learning once it can be accomplished safely if we’re committed and creative.”

Paradis, the other Skyline teacher, is a parent himself and knows how tough it was to juggle teaching his classes while also making sure his own kids, who are entering kindergarten and second grade, were logging onto their virtual classes and learning. He has been organizing the “Refuse to Return” campaign’s outreach to families, encouraging parents to get on board.

man holding a sign
Paul Paradis, who teaches at Skyline High School, holds a sign during the 2019 Oakland teachers’ strike. Credit: courtesy Paul Paradis

“It’s not ideal. Everybody would rather just be in school but that’s not the reality we’re in right now,” he said. “I don’t feel safe knowing what I know about OUSD facilities.”

At Skyline, Paradis teaches social studies in a building with about a dozen classrooms. One girls’ and one boys’ bathroom serve the entire building, which are risky conditions during a pandemic, he said.

Instead of concentrating on how to make campuses safe to reopen, Litzelman thinks district officials could have spent the summer working on making virtual learning better, by offering training to teachers and making sure students and teachers have adequate technology to participate. 

Farias, the special-ed teacher at Coliseum College Prep Academy who helps lead organizing for the teachers’ union, has heard from her colleagues that they don’t feel prepared for the school year to start and are frustrated with the apparent gridlock at the bargaining table. Ultimately, she said, teacher safety and student’s academic progress are not competing priorities, and sending teachers back to the classroom prematurely could end up hurting students.

“We’re putting not just teachers, but student learning at risk. If teachers are compromised in terms of not having what we need, then students clearly aren’t going to be getting what they need.”

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.