More than 500 Oakland Unified teachers stage ‘sickout’ to demand more COVID safety measures

More than 500 Oakland Unified School District teachers staged a “sickout” Friday and held a car caravan to demand more COVID-19 safety measures from the district, including two weeks of remote learning and mass distribution of N95 masks, amid a recent spike in cases fueled by the omicron variant.

Due to 503 teacher absences on Friday, at least 12 out of 80 TK-12 schools in the district shut down for instruction and students were told to stay home for a “snow” or “smoke day”, OUSD Director of Communications John Sasaki said in a news conference.

Sasaki called the sickout “illegal” and “unauthorized.” It was not sanctioned by the Oakland Teachers Association and was organized by an ad-hoc group of teachers.

An average of 250 teachers in the district did not report for work each day this week — an uptick from the about 160 to 200 teacher absences the district usually has, Sasaki said. The majority of the families were notified of the shutdowns ahead of time. Instruction for all schools is expected to resume on Monday.

The schools that were closed for instruction included: Garfield Elementary, West Oakland Middle School, United for Success Academy, Madison Park Academy Upper 6-12, Coliseum College Prep Academy, Life Academy, Fremont High School, Oakland Technical High School, Skyline High School, MetWest High School, Ralph Bunche Academy and Oakland International High School, according to Sasaki. Dewey Academy, which was anticipated to be closed due to the action, ended up staying open.

The closures come as teachers demanded better safety measures during a surge in COVID cases that they say have caused more students and staff to stay home due to infection and exposure, according to a Thursday news release from a group of teachers. The teachers have asked for: mass distribution to staff and students of N95 and KN95 masks, PCR testing on a weekly basis, retroactively extending COVID leave from Nov. 7 2021 to Jun. 30, 2022, HEPA filters in cafeterias and other spaces, no budget cuts to student services and classrooms, support for school nurses, negotiating with the Oakland Education Association on safety measures and two weeks of remote learning in order to implement the changes and reduce community spread.

“Staff and students sit in half-empty classrooms terrified that they will be the next to get infected and bring the disease home to their loved ones,” Skyline High School teachers said in the release. “Meanwhile, Oakland Unified continues to stonewall our safety bargaining team, refusing to negotiate in good faith the safety protocols and resources we need to keep schools open safely.”

Carrie Landheer, who has worked for OUSD since 2016 and teaches general education for fourth and fifth graders at Garfield Elementary, said 126 students were absent from her school on Monday.

OAKLAND, CA – JANUARY 7: Oakland Unified School District Teachers take part in a one-day sickout for school safety by holding a car caravan past the Oakland Unified School District Office in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, January 7, 2022. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

About 41,000 home testing kits were distributed to students and families before winter break and between Dec. 31 to Jan. 3, there were 985 positive COVID cases, including 920 students or staff members and 65 family or community members, according to OUSD.

Sasaki said that COVID testing is available daily through regional testing sites and at-home testing kits and the district has been distributing KN95 masks to schools Friday and Thursday. Masks have also been ordered for students and air purifiers have already been placed in all classrooms, he said. And the extension of remote learning won’t be possible, according to Sasaki, because the state doesn’t allow funding for the district to go virtual for two weeks.

“We’d be shutting down and not be getting what would be millions and millions of dollars,” he said. “We believe the best place to be is in our schools.”

Sasaki also said the district “sees no problem” with the at-home rapid tests that have been sent home with students and doesn’t believe they’re less accurate than PCR testing. A recent study contends that antigen tests, including Quidel’s QuickVue and Abbott’s BinaxNOW, missed detecting the omicron variant during the first days of infection.

“We see no reason not to rely on the rapid testing,” Sasaki said. “As of right now testing is not mandatory.”

OAKLAND, CA – JANUARY 7: An Oakland Unified School District teacher along with others take part in a one-day sickout for school safety by holding a car caravan past the Oakland Unified School District Office in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, January 7, 2022. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

The district reached a “tentative agreement” on Thursday with OEA regarding extending COVID leave, which OEA said allows for supplemental sick days for staff related to COVID, but it still has to be approved by the California State Board of Education and negotiated with other labor partners, according to Sasaki.

“The bottom line is when you do this, you create problems for our families and you potentially create more dangerous circumstances for our kids,” Sasaki said. “We hope this doesn’t happen again and we look forward to getting back to business as usual on Monday.”

Landheer contends that Garfield Elementary asked for N95 masks and PCR tests this week from the district but were told that there weren’t any available. Landheer said the district has a list of PCR testing sites but it’s “just general, open-to-the-community” testing and she has had a colleague turned away from one of the sites on Friday for the third day in a row due to lack of PCR tests.

“That’s news to us,” she said about the district officials saying masks would be provided. “I think it’s quite vague for when they said masks would arrive. I heard they said they’ll arrive when they get here and I’d like to know what that means. Is it next week or is it next month?”

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