More than 1,200 students in Oakland, California, have signed a petition saying they would stay home this week unless school administrators provide additional Covid protections, including more N95 masks, weekly testing and better social distancing – or a shift to virtual learning.
On Tuesday, three district campuses were closed because students and teachers, in solidarity, stayed home.
At a news conference today, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) spokesperson John Sasaki said that attendance numbers would not be available until tomorrow, but the district was expecting more than a thousand students to stay home. The district said it was providing free tests and masks and had implemented other safety protocols including air purifiers, but students and teachers have alleged inequities in the distribution of resources between schools in more and less wealthy neighborhoods.
The protest comes as schools across the country have struggled with the latest, Omicron-fueled wave of the coronavirus pandemic. In recent weeks, students in New York City, New Jersey, Chicago, Washington DC and elsewhere have launched protests and petitions as well, demanding improved safety measures. Districts, meanwhile, have faced immense pressures from parents and politicians to keep school campuses open as the US enters its third year of the pandemic.
Students and teachers around the US have complained of inconsistency in schools’ coronavirus policies and a chaotic return from winter break. Last week, students from several New York City schools walked out, demanding virtual learning options, and a video of hundreds of masked, Brooklyn Technical High students filing out of class went viral.
“I think the number one emotion I feel is just frustrated,” Favour Akingbemi, 17, a senior at Washington Preparatory high school in South LA, told the Guardian earlier this month. Nearly three of Akingbemi’s four high school years have been defined by Covid-19. “It’s upsetting that we’re still stuck in this pandemic,” she said.
As students stage walkouts over a lack of high-quality masks and coronavirus tests, the Biden administration today announced that it had distributed that last of its $122bn Covid-19 relief funding for schools from the American Rescue Plan.
“I am proud that, with the approval of these plans, states have 100% of their funds and robust plans to help schools remain open and help students thrive,” said the education secretary, Miguel Cardona.
Cardona also echoed calls from Joe Biden to keep public schools open. “We know what it takes to keep our schools open safely for in-person learning, and these funds will help us achieve that goal,” he said.
But students in Oakland and around the country are alleging that resources have not been distributed equitably. Moreover, in the face of the highly-transmissible Omicron variant, students and teachers who are immunocompromised or live with elderly or immunocompromised family members say that they still feel unsafe attending class in person.
“Teaching is already a stressful job. Doing so when I’m fearing for my life and for students’ lives and the lives of their families is just on a different level,” Joanne Yi, a teacher at Augustus Hawkins in South Los Angeles, told the Guardian this month.
Safety concerns and mandated quarantines for exposed students are among the reasons the Los Angeles Unified School District recorded 130,000 student absences last week with only a 66.8% attendance rate.