Signs on the doors of Horace Mann Elementary school inform people that masks are required to be worn while on school property. Credit: Kathryn Styer Martínez

A student protest calling for more COVID safety measures in Oakland schools that began with a class boycott on Tuesday isn’t losing steam yet. On Friday, student organizers from several high schools held a Zoom call, where students expressed their continued concerns about being in school while the virus is still surging.

More than 250 students and teachers, including several entire classrooms from schools across Oakland Unified School District, participated in the meeting, which was held in place of an in-person protest that was planned to take place in front of the school district office in downtown Oakland. 

“Why are we still striking? I know a lot of schools have gotten all three of their demands met, but not all schools,” said Nuriel Cahigas, a student at Oakland Technical High School. “We’re all a community and we want all of our community to have the necessary resources to decrease the spread.”

The protest movement was sparked earlier this month, after students from MetWest High School started a petition—signed by over 1,200 students to date—asking for the school district to provide KN95 masks for every student, outdoor eating structures at every school, and weekly or twice-weekly COVID testing on every campus. Oakland Unified has since been able to distribute KN95 masks to students, and has ordered equipment for students to eat meals outdoors, but the request for increased testing is more difficult to fulfill, school district officials have said. 

Oakland Unified currently administers more than 10,000 tests per week, with the vast majority of those being rapid antigen tests that students and staff take at school. The district offers regular biweekly testing at schools, and more frequent testing, up to twice a week, when there are positive cases in classrooms. Last week, OUSD reported 866 student cases and 129 staff cases at school campuses, and the test positivity rate last week was nearly 15%. 

Increasing testing frequency isn’t likely unless the district can get more tests or more staff to administer them. At a COVID information session last week, Sailaja Suresh, OUSD’s senior director of strategic projects who leads the district’s COVID response, pointed to limited tests, staffing, and time as finite resources. 

“We just want to be as prudent with that finite resource as we can, which means prioritizing unvaccinated individuals, individuals with symptoms or with known exposures,” Suresh said. Doing so will ensure that those resources can last until they can be “replenished again by the state or by the testing manufacturers themselves.”

Since returning to school from winter break, teachers and students have planned protest actions across the district to call attention to their safety concerns. Teachers at several schools have held three unsanctionedsickouts’ since Jan. 3, causing about two dozen schools to close for one day. 

The Oakland Education Association has been bargaining with OUSD over safety conditions since September and has also been asking for improved safety measures at school sites, including weekly testing, and things like increased ventilation in large spaces. This week, OEA president Keith Brown said that if OUSD and OEA fail to reach a tentative agreement soon, OEA membership could vote to authorize a strike. 

It’s difficult to determine how many students chose to stay home this week because of the boycott versus staying home because they tested positive for COVID or because they were exposed at school. On Tuesday, the first day of the boycott, about 26% of students were absent, 23% were absent on Wednesday, and 21% were out on Thursday. But prior to the student boycott, absences were also high: During the week of Jan. 3, student absences averaged nearly 20% per day, and during the second week absences reached 28%. 

During Friday’s student Zoom call, Alexander Ibarra, a seventh-grader at Coliseum College Prep Academy mentioned that most of his classmates have been absent from school this month because they have COVID themselves, or members of their families do.

“We just got testing two weeks ago, which means that we test every two weeks. In between that time, a lot of people could get COVID, which would mean that we wouldn’t really have a good hold on the spread,” he said. 

Several teachers joined the call from their school to allow their students to participate, or to show how empty their classrooms were. Twelfth-graders at Oakland High School shared that there were only 10 students in their class and they were all seniors who came to school because they had to finish their senior projects to graduate. 

Some students called for a temporary return to virtual learning until COVID cases subside. Selina, an 11th-grade student at Oakland High School, suggested that more students should comment at school board meetings to have their voices heard by district leaders. 

“We need to get more students to speak out. These people who have more privilege than us and aren’t in our classrooms and in our schools are speaking on things they don’t know,” she said. “We all need to speak out about how we feel unsafe at school. No matter what, we need to come in solidarity with our teachers.”

The student organizers are planning to continue with their protests and have encouraged more students to mobilize at their own schools. 

“We’ll continue doing this work until OUSD gives us what we demand,” Cahigas, the Oakland Tech student said. “Until then, continue pushing your staff, admin, and principals, to really hold them accountable to all of our health concerns.”

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.