two students sit in front of a laptop
MetWest High School students Nikayla Dean (left) and Ayleen Serrano (right) discuss the petition and strategies for their next steps. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Rapidly rising COVID cases among students and staff, increasingly empty classes, and fears about contracting the omicron variant have prompted some Oakland students to threaten to boycott school next week, unless Oakland Unified School District provides increased safety measures. 

What started out as a group brainstorm by students at a small school in Oakland has grown into a strike campaign supported by more than a thousand Oakland youth, garnering national attention. Students across the country have organized similar actions

Their demands? Enough KN95 masks for every student, twice-a-week PCR and rapid testing, and outdoor equipment like tables and umbrellas at every school so students can stay safe and dry during meal times. 

“The only way for us to stop this is if they give us what we want. Until we actually have it in our hands,” said Ayleen Serrano, a sophomore at MetWest High School. “We won’t fall for any more empty promises.”

Students sent their petition to Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell and school board directors late last week, with a deadline of Monday, Jan. 17. With their requests currently unfulfilled, the students plan to stay home from school beginning Tuesday, Jan. 18, and will picket outside of the district’s downtown office on Friday, Jan. 21. 

Thousands of OUSD students and teachers returned to school on Jan. 3 following the winter break, just as omicron was causing COVID-19 cases to surge in Oakland and throughout the country. The district reported nearly 1,000 new COVID-19 cases among students and staff in the first week of school—more than it reported in the entire fall semester. According to Serrano, some classes at MetWest High had only several students in them because so many were out with COVID or had been exposed and were quarantining at home.

With her classmates, Serrano started thinking of what they could do to slow the spread, and they decided on a petition for more safety measures and a school boycott if that didn’t work. 

“We’re not doing this just to skip school. We’re doing it for our safety,” said Nikayla Dean, a sophomore at MetWest who also helped start the petition. “Teachers have to come here and teach us and they have to go home. If one of us gets COVID, we all have to go home to the people in our house. It’s not just for our safety, but other people’s safety.”

Meeting demands could be tricky

OUSD officials have said that two of the students’ demands—KN95 masks and outdoor eating equipment—are already in the works. But meeting the one-week deadline is unlikely due to global supply chain issues and demand, which have caused delays. 

“We have had the supplies for new covered eating spaces at dozens of schools, including new tables and shade structures, on order since, in some cases, last summer,” said a statement OUSD issued in response to the student letter. 

This week, OUSD received a donation of 10,000 masks for high schooler students from local restaurant owner Euge Lee, and on Jan. 13 a shipment of 200,000 KN95 masks arrived and schools began distributing them to students in all grade levels. There are about 34,000 students enrolled in OUSD.

At a school board meeting on Jan. 12, the district’s chief systems and services officer Preston Thomas said that OUSD placed orders for the KN95 masks for students after coming back from winter break. Serrano and Dean, both 15, said that was exactly the problem, and wished that getting high-quality KN95 masks for students had been a priority earlier in the school year.

Increasing testing frequency has also been difficult for OUSD. Right now, the district dispatches testers to classes with confirmed positive cases, offers twice-a-month voluntary testing at middle and high schools, and operates 10 additional testing sites. But with positive cases at nearly every school in the district, testers are at their limits.  

Wednesday’s meeting also featured several students making comments about what school has been like for the past two weeks. 

“Now that we’ve come back from break, classrooms are empty because of the rising number of cases. Students at my school, as well as myself, are worried about their safety and education,” said Vida Mendoza, a 10th grader at Life Academy of Health and Bioscience, who had COVID during the winter break and missed the first week of school. “While I was in quarantine, I was more worried about how my education would be impacted, when I should have been worried about my recovery. Students across the district feel the same way.”

Could remote learning be an option?

The student petition is also calling on the district to resume remote learning if it can’t supply the personal protective equipment, outdoor eating spaces, and increased testing by the Jan. 17 deadline. Some teachers, including those who planned a “sickout” on Jan. 7, have said that a temporary return to distance learning would make it easier to keep all of their students on track and cause fewer disruptions for students who are at home sick or quarantined. 

Serrano, the MetWest student, added that going back to distance learning until the district’s supplies come in can be a way to stem the spread of COVID. 

“If that takes a week, in that week there’s going to be more cases. We just think it’s not safe to be at school until we get the safety measures that we need,” she said.

MetWest students initially planned for their petition to represent just their school, but decided to share it across the district. It’s racked up more than 1,200 signatures from OUSD students. Credit: Amir Aziz

Higher numbers of staff absences have strained schools, but most have been able to remain open. Teacher absences last week hovered around 250 per day district-wide, and on Friday reached 500 when some teachers planned a ‘sickout’ and purposely called out sick in protest

At Wednesday’s school board meeting, Superintendent Johnson-Trammell said that decisions to close a school, grade level, or classroom would be handled on a case-by-case basis. But before a decision to close can be made, the district evaluates how many campus staff are available to cover classes, and then how many central office staff are available. If both options are exhausted, only then would OUSD move to close a school. 

The teacher sickout on Jan. 7 caused 12 schools to send notices to families warning them not to bring their children to school that day, because there wouldn’t be enough teachers to teach them. On Jan. 13, another sickout reportedly caused nine schools to close for the day. Some Oakland charter schools, including Oakland School for the Arts, the Lighthouse Community Public Schools network that operates two schools in East Oakland, and Bay Area Technology School, have all had to close or switch to distance learning for a period of time following the winter break and surge in COVID cases.

Sam Davis, who represents District 1 on the school board, met with students Monday to discuss their concerns. Davis, who has a son at Oakland Technical High School, said he worries about what students could lose if schools revert back to distance learning. 

“I think we need to listen to what the public health experts are advising us right now. They’re still saying, the isolation and academic loss of shutting down and going to distance learning is still more of a concern, at this point, than the danger of getting infected, given that we have vaccines and treatments,” he said. “We need to listen to [students’] demands, and try to make it safe enough so that students feel they can be safe on campus.”

State law is another reason why OUSD can’t shut down. Oakland Unified, and all school districts in California, receive funding from the state based on in-person student attendance. In 2020 and 2021, the legislature allowed them to continue receiving funding while operating remotely, but that allowance expired last year. In order to continue receiving funding if a school has to shut down, there are several hurdles, which include getting approval from the state and county departments of education, creating a plan for independent study, and proving that they’ve run out of options for covering classes. 

Many students, like Deric Chau, a junior at Skyline High School, do prefer in-person learning over remote learning.

“The social aspect of learning is taken away. It felt like people got on Zoom just to be there and get their attendance,” he said. “With in-person school, we actually learn something and are more engaged.”

Still, Chau, 16, feels that more could be done in schools to alleviate students’ concerns. He signed the student petition and also helped to organize a student-led sickout on Jan. 13, which coincided with another teacher sickout. He and other students are planning to talk with their teachers so that they can align and strengthen their causes. Solidarity, Chau said, is the way to make change. 

Activism isn’t new for Oakland youth. In November, hundreds of students walked out of Oakland Technical High School to protest OUSD’s handling of reports of sexual assault and harassment, which led to the district reexamining its policies, and additional lessons about sex education for high schoolers. Two years ago, OUSD students organized with the Black Organizing Project to disband the school police department, and a student-led protest brought 15,000 people to the streets in June 2020.

“Youth have power and can make things happen,” Chau said. “To come together and have unity, you can make change happen quicker.”

Ashley McBride reports on education equity for The Oaklandside. She covered the 2019 Oakland Unified School District teachers’ strike as a breaking news reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. More recently, she was an education reporter for the San Antonio Express-News where she covered several local school districts, charter schools, and the community college system. McBride earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, has held positions at the Palm Beach Post and the Poynter Institute, and is a recent Hearst Journalism Fellow.