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Parents frustrated by pandemic education launch activist group to raise their voices

A person wearing a face mask holds a sign through the open passenger window of a car that reads "Open schools"
Participants call for reopening campuses in a February car caravan in downtown Los Angeles. A new group is trying to sustain the parent activism.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

The group OpenSchoolsCA coalesced around parent anger over how long it was taking to reopen California campuses that were closed for a year or more amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Their discontent simmered for months when reopenings offered students much less than a full five-day-a-week school experience.

Leaders of OpenSchoolsCA announced Wednesday that they intend to continue their activism through a nonprofit to promote direct parent influence in the state’s highly political education landscape.

“As one of the tens of thousands of California moms who stepped back from the workforce to care for my school-age children, working moms must never be the default option for closed schools,” said Megan Bacigalupi, the founding parent and executive director of the new group. “Parent voices and student interests should never again be ignored or deprioritized as they have been during this year. Parents and kids must have a seat at the table.”

Bacigalupi has a kindergartener and second-grader in the Oakland Unified School District. At this stage, with funding a work in progress, Bacigalupi will be the nonprofit’s only paid staff member. She’s a lawyer who has held leadership roles in Bay Area nonprofits. Prior to moving back to California, she worked for seven years in the mayor’s office in New York city, including as the director of federal legislative affairs at the Department of Education.

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Board members include education advocate and political consultant Pat Reilly, who has two children in Berkeley Unified, and Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He has a child in West Contra Costa Unified.

Advisers include West Contra Costa school board member Mister Phillips and former Oakland Unified board member Jumoke Hinton-Hodge. Another adviser, David Castillo, is a charter school consultant and advocate. Charter school supporters and teacher unions regularly battle for political influence in California, but Bacigalupi insists the current project is not about that.

She said she doesn’t want her group to be anti-teachers union per se, but she has concluded, especially based on the experience of the pandemic, that the interests of parents and teachers unions don’t always coincide — and that parents need a louder voice — distinct from the unions’.

The group intends to “develop policy recommendations in collaboration with other statewide advocacy groups to ensure the interests of the six million children in California’s public schools are prioritized,” according to a release. This effort will include supporting candidates, “including parents, who maintain positions that prioritize kids’ academic and emotional needs, to run for key elected positions, such as school boards.”

Raising enough funds to matter and avoiding the charter-school-versus-teachers-union divide will be a challenge. In Los Angeles, for example, those two interest groups have dominated school-board election spending.

The open-schools effort was buttressed by sympathetic elected officials, medical professionals, superintendents, advocacy groups and child-wellness experts. In several instances, including in L.A., dissatisfaction over reopening has led to lawsuits.

There also have been committed voices with different positions, who, like the L.A. County Health Dept., have generally supported Gov. Gavin Newsom’s approach to campus closures.

When Newsom felt it was time to reopen campuses, teachers unions and their allies pushed back, demanding maximum vaccine immunity for teachers and other campus employees before supporting a return. Many California unions got their wish — even though state and federal health authorities said the additional precaution was not essential.

The L.A. teachers union has been critical of parents who wanted the option to return to campuses sooner, saying they did not represent the sentiments of a majority of parents of color in areas hard hit by the pandemic, who have ongoing concerns about safety at school.

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Most campuses reopened up and down the state over the spring. Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school system, gradually opened schoolhouse doors — for a part-time, on-campus schedule — over the month of April.

When given the opportunity to return, the parents of about 70% of the children enrolled in elementary schools in L.A. Unified chose to remain in remote learning from home.


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