Elementary school students at Acorn Woodland Elementary make signs during a teacher sickout on Jan. 18, 2022. Credit: Courtesy Acorn Woodland Elementary teachers

Three Oakland schools were closed Tuesday as teachers participated in another ‘sickout,’ where teachers purposely called in sick, to protest COVID safety conditions at schools. The action was planned to coincide with the first day of a student-led boycott of school over a lack of safety precautions.

Bridges Academy at Melrose and Acorn Woodland, two elementary schools, and United for Success Academy, a middle school, were closed Tuesday as teachers and supporters gathered in front of the schools to hold a rally and car caravan to the downtown school district office. It was the third teacher sickout this month. District officials don’t yet have estimates for how many students were absent from school on Tuesday.

Two of the students’ demands—covered outdoor eating spaces, and high-quality KN95 masks for all students—are in progress. But the final demand, for more testing, remains unmet. Students are asking for twice-a-week PCR or rapid testing at every school, while teachers have also asked for increased testing for students and staff. 

“Students are telling us, ‘This is what will make us feel more safe,’” said Yael Friedman, a fifth-grade teacher at Acorn Woodland. “If students are demanding this, it’s our job as teachers to support them.”

Oakland Unified operates testing sites at 10 locations across the district, sends teams to test classes whenever there have been positive cases, and offers testing at some schools once a week and twice per week at others, said John Sasaki, communications director for OUSD. 

“We feel very good about the testing that we’ve been doing for our students, our staff, and families,” Sasaki said. “We encourage and we appreciate [students’] activism and bringing these issues to us. We feel as though we have very robustly addressed their concerns.”

Sasha Rockwell, who teaches third and fourth grade at Bridges Academy at Melrose, wants to see OUSD implement a testing policy similar to that of Los Angeles Unified School District. All students and staff in that district were required to test negative before returning to school this term, and must test weekly throughout the month of January, regardless of vaccination status. 

With frequent, regular testing, more students would be able to stay in class, Rockwell added. 

“Students who are positive can be identified and quarantined, and students who may have cold or flu-like symptoms can be identified as not having coronavirus and can stay at school,” she said. 

Absence rates for the week of Jan. 3 reached nearly 20% for students, and 28% the week of Jan. 10. Oakland Unified’s absence rate for the entire year is around 12%. High numbers of students staying home because they have COVID, or because they’ve been exposed to COVID and are quarantining, or because their school is closed during a teacher ‘sickout’ have all contributed to higher absence rates for the first two weeks of 2022.  

Having so many students out makes it more difficult for teachers to keep all of their students learning at the same pace. At Bridges Academy, where on average 7% of students are absent per day, 28% of students have been absent in the past two weeks, Rockwell said. 

Friedman, the teacher at Acorn Woodland, has seen similar absence rates in her classes. 

“On a daily basis, 30 to 50% of students have been absent. We haven’t been providing any instruction for them,” she said. “We’ve also really struggled to make school meaningful for those kids who are in school. Do we keep going with the curriculum knowing half the class is going to miss it?”

Teachers have also raised concerns about the KN95 masks that OUSD has been distributing to students. Each student is supposed to receive one mask per day for five days, and then reuse each mask on the same day the following week, for five weeks, which is in line with public health guidance on reusing KN95 masks. But with children, getting five uses out of a mask is more difficult, said Zinia Gangopadhyay, a teacher at Acorn Woodland. 

“From August through December, we were often replacing masks, even at the fifth-grade level,” she said. “It’s the difference between what works on paper and what works in practice.”

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.