A crosswalk outside of Garfield Elementary in Oakland. Credit: Jose Fermoso

Crossing guards employed by the city of Oakland have the important task of keeping students safe when they’re coming and going from their school sites. Before the pandemic, the city had 69 such crossing guards, assigned mostly to OUSD elementary schools. But as of the end of October, there were only 46 active guards working at 36 schools, nearly a 30% drop.  

Oakland’s dangerous roadways

This article is part of our special series looking into traffic and pedestrian safety in the city. Read more.

Oakland’s Department of Transportation shared the updated numbers as part of a larger report to the City Council during a Special Public Works Committee meeting on Nov. 29. 

Megan Weir, who leads the Safe Streets Division at OakDOT, said the biggest reason for the drop is the pandemic’s impact on school staffing. When schools closed in March 2020, all crossing guard positions were dismissed, or labeled “non-active.” However, said Weir, when they were asked back in April 2021, many did not return because of various life changes or health worries, including potentially getting the virus in such a public-facing role.

“There’s been a lot of transition for everyone, frankly, in the last couple of years. Particularly for this program,” she said. 

For years, the crossing guard program was managed by the Oakland Police Department. But OakDOT took over the program in May—one of nearly 50 new recommendations included in the city’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force report. The City of Oakland created the task force in the aftermath of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 to explore public safety methods that don’t involve the police.

OakDOT Director Ryan Russo said it’s been difficult to transition some active guards to a new management and payment schedule. Making sure every guard is vaccinated is another reason for the hardship, he said. 

“In order to keep serving in the city of Oakland, it has been quite a herculean lift to our existing workforce [to go] through that process. And that is the same lifting we would do in recruiting,” Russo said. 

The special committee meeting was a follow-up to a meeting in October called by Councilmembers Noel Gallo and Sheng Thao. Their inquiry centered around the city’s inability to staff up to 75 crossing guards, which the council approved earlier this year under its current budget. 

“When school started this year, a number of our schools throughout the city and a couple in my district did not have crossing guards—Bridge Academy and Manzanita Academy, two schools [with] many challenges when it comes to traffic safety,” Gallo said in the meeting.

Russo and OakDOT staff cited the substantial amount of time needed to recruit people, interview them, and conduct proper background checks. Currently, he said, the hiring process for new crossing guards takes between three and five months. OakDOT is currently processing several new applicants and is expecting about seven former guards to come back in time for the spring semester. 

The department also announced the creation of a web page for the school crossing guard program, where interested residents can apply. Potential applicants can also email the department directly at oakdothumanresources@oaklandca.gov. The site includes a map of all the schools that have crossing guards:

Crossing guard positions in Oakland are part-time and cover drop-off and pick-up times at school. Pay is advertised as $42 a day, and the jobs are typically staffed by people living in school neighborhoods. The position requires standing during work hours and consists of helping people move along crosswalks safely. These crossing guards are separate from the city’s School Safety Patrol Program, which OakDOT also oversees along with the Alameda County Public Health Department. The Safety Patrol is a grant-funded volunteer leadership program where students help direct pedestrians and car traffic at their campus before and after school, under the supervision of an adult, usually a teacher.

Principal Rachel Quinn of Glenview Elementary said the Safety Patrol does a good job, at least at her school site. It’s usually the experience of the supervising teachers, she noted, that makes a difference. 

“I think our Safety Patrol does a really good job, actually. I have been at other schools where it is just a mess,” she said in an email. “It takes a lot of people power and someone who is very assertive (like my Safety Patrol teacher, Mr. Miller) to tell people what they can and cannot do. It is not a role for everyone,” she added. 

The official city crossing guards are not supposed to engage with traffic and have no authority to determine road violations or enforce traffic laws. 

Cox Academy Elementary Principal Omar Currie said the crossing guard program has been a valuable part of his school’s recent safety efforts, especially since 90% of his students live within a mile of campus and walk to school. Currently, the school has three of the 46 guards in Oakland. 

Even so, said Currie, the roads surrounding the school site can feel unsafe. He sometimes takes on the role of an additional guard, he said, to make sure kids get to school safely. Currie said that doing the job of a crossing guard can be an “emotional” experience, and can even involve getting into arguments with drivers. 

“I’ve had to stop in the middle of the street to get cars from going in the wrong direction,” he said in a phone interview. 

Speeding around the school is common, he said, and he believes there should be more police support. For example, earlier this year, as teachers were inside the school prepping for classes, a car crashed into Cox Elementary’s playground. The driver got out of the car and ran away from the scene. Luckily, no children were around.

 “Crossing guards can’t [affect] the quality of driving,” he said. 

In 2020, there were 12 crashes near the school, according to the Safe Routes to School SWITRS database run by Berkeley’s SafeTrek, including one crash four blocks away in front of  Elmhurst Elementary, which caused a fatality. Since nobody was hit during the playground crash at Cox, it will not count toward 2021 data. 

In the last few years, several collisions near Oakland elementary schools have led to deaths or serious injuries. In 2019, a pedestrian was hit in front of East Oakland Pride Elementary, on 82nd Avenue. In 2018, a woman died in a hit-and-run while crossing the street with her 4-year-old daughter in front of Garfield Elementary. And there have been several collisions against pedestrian and bicycle riders in front of Roots International Academy, at Havenscourt Boulevard in Fruitvale, since 2015. East Oakland Pride and Garfield each have one crossing guard, and Roots is in the same block as Lockwood Elementary, which has three. 

OakDOT has said in the past that it uses collision data from SWITRS to help it make decisions around road safety. In last week’s report, officials noted the department is “developing a prioritization approach” for the school crossing guard program around safety and equity, similar to how it chooses which streets to prioritize for paving.

One positive arising from OakDOT’s takeover of the crossing guard program, noted Weir, is that there are now monthly meetings between school officials and Safe Streets engineers. So if a parent has a specific concern around school-site safety, they can tell school staff and expect that feedback to reach OakDOT officials. 

Currie, who has been attending those meetings, said the majority of the conversations so far have had to do mostly with returning to school from the pandemic, and not much about road safety. 

More than 30 public elementary schools in Oakland don’t have any crossing guards, and some residents say they feel left out of the process. 

A resident in the Jefferson neighborhood of East Oakland wrote into the city’s 311 help site four months ago to say that the Global Family (formerly Jefferson Elementary) and Learning Without Limits schools, both in East Oakland, are surrounded by danger and sorely need guards. The person said students enter the schools from different locations, including from 39th Avenue and Carrington Street. 

“Due to the challenge of multiple entry points, I believe having delays in traffic and folks double parking is a cause of concern for the safety of our children,” they wrote.

Other city residents told The Oaklandside that there are not enough guards helping out. Anna Kim, who lives close to an elementary school in Chinatown, said that the guards near her neighborhood school only seem to cover streets that lack traffic signals. “Not the main streets where I see most of the accidents happen, usually due to running the traffic lights,” she said. 

Others say that when it comes to dangerous driving speeds, several schools need help but don’t have any official school crossing guards. Reid Williamson, a car designer who lives near Fruitvale, said that at Sequoia Elementary, on Lincoln Avenue in the Lower Dimond neighborhood, he has seen cars speed down the hill. But the school’s only crossing guard is a volunteer parent.

“I didn’t even know crossing guards were related to a program and that schools have one,” he said.

Jose Fermoso is a 2021 Knight-Wallace Fellow reporting on traffic and road safety for The Oaklandside. His work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Born and raised in Oakland, Jose has also worked on the bestselling unauthorized biography of Apple's Jony Ive and led all content initiatives at App Academy, the top U.S. coding boot camp. He is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.