teacher rally
In October, dozens of teachers and school staff held a rally outside of a school board meeting to demand better safety precautions. Credit: Ashley McBride

A group of Oakland teachers and staff are planning to call in sick on Friday to bring attention to their safety demands as students return to school in the midst of another COVID surge. 

The action, which has not been authorized by the Oakland Education Association teachers’ union, follows similar demonstrations from teachers around the country who are protesting conditions in their schools. In San Francisco, educators called out of work on Thursday, and in Chicago, classes were canceled Wednesday and Thursday after the teachers’ union voted to switch from in-person to remote learning.

Teachers said the goal of their sickout is to compel OUSD leadership to meet with them and address their safety concerns. 

“It’s a way of demonstrating that if we don’t have what we need to be safe, and safety is a number one concern for learning, then we don’t do it. We shut it down,” said one high school teacher. They asked not to be identified because the action is not sanctioned by the union. 

Teachers behind the protest said in a press release that they will be joined by faculty and staff from Skyline High School, Fremont High School, Oakland Technical High School, Garfield Elementary, Life Academy, MetWest, Coliseum College Prep Academy, and other schools. They plan to drive in a car caravan to OUSD’s offices in downtown Oakland. Principals at Oakland Technical High School and Fremont High sent a message to families Thursday advising them not to send their students to school on Friday because there would likely not be any instruction with so many teachers out.

OEA and Oakland Unified School District have been negotiating safety measures since last fall when schools first reopened fully after the March 2020 pandemic shutdown. The union is requesting mandatory weekly COVID testing for students and staff, tables and tents at every school so that students can eat outdoors, increased ventilation in large spaces like cafeterias and auditoriums, and KN95 masks provided by the district for every student and staff member. They also want an extension of COVID sick leave, which was part of Senate Bill 95 and offered employees up to 10 days of additional sick leave specifically for COVID-19. That provision expired last fall.

Teachers have been pressuring OUSD to improve COVID safety measures since the district first considered reopening fully to in-person learning last year. In October, teachers rallied outside a school board meeting calling for greater safety measures.

“Friday’s actions are not an official union action, but we’re urging the district and state leaders and our elected officials to listen to the urgent demands of all Oakland educators for better masks and more testing,” said Keith Brown, the president of OEA. “It’s critical that we have dramatic action from our decision makers to address staffing shortages to ensure that our schools remain safe and are open for our students.”

Other demands from those participating in the unauthorized sick-out include a request that the district switch to two weeks of remote learning while the omicron surge passes, and no budget cuts to school campuses. The OUSD board has to make $40 million in budget reductions this month

“Students deserve safe schools. What is a higher priority than the physical safety and well-being of students and the broader community,” said Sarah Goudy, a teacher and chair of OEA’s safety bargaining committee. “That should be the top priority right now and we want OUSD to act accordingly.”

Over the past few weeks, Alameda County has seen the highest daily case numbers since last January, prompting the county health department to reinstate its indoor mask mandate. Several local bars and restaurants have temporarily closed, and organizers of Oakland’s First Fridays have cancelled the event for this month. 

Before the winter break, OUSD distributed 41,000 at-home COVID tests to students and families, with instructions to take the tests on Dec. 31 and Jan. 2 before returning to school on Jan. 3. The district also hosted a testing pop-up site at Fremont High School during the break. But some teachers and families pointed out that not every student got a take-home test kit, and lines at Fremont caused some to wait for hours

About 920 students and staff tested positive before returning to school on Monday. That same day, 269 teachers were absent, but the district was able to cover those absences with substitutes and staff from the central office. 

“We’re continuing to have huge staff shortages. Multiple staff are out with COVID,” the teacher said. “23% of students at my school aren’t showing up.”

While OUSD’s COVID case dashboard hasn’t been updated with individual cases for this week yet, on Thursday one classroom each at Urban Promise Academy, Greenleaf TK-8 and Lockwood STEAM Academy were quarantined at home, which means that there were three or more apparently linked COVID cases in the classroom. 

In a message to families Thursday, district leaders maintained that schools are the safest places for students to be because most people in OUSD are vaccinated, classrooms all have high-quality air filters, and testing is available to all students and staff. OUSD does not have an estimate of how many teachers will be out, or how many schools may be affected.  

“We will be doing everything possible to keep schools open for our students on Friday,” the message said. “However, the unexpected loss of additional teachers through a planned ‘sick out’ would be devastating to our schools and to the efforts we’ve made so far to keep our schools open and our students safe.”

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.