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12 Oakland schools close after teachers stage ‘sickout,’ citing COVID safety worries

Teacher Alex Brandenburg protests for stronger COVID-19 safety protocols.
Elementary school teacher Alex Brandenburg protests for stronger pandemic safety protocols Friday outside Oakland Unified School District headquarters. Teachers held a “sickout” on Friday in an effort to demand increased safety measures from the district.
(Noah Berger / Associated Press)

The Oakland Unified School District reported about 500 teacher absences on Friday, forcing 12 schools serving 8,400 students to close. Teacher absences Friday were twice as high as any other day during the week, as teachers called in sick and demanded increased pandemic safety measures, said district spokesperson John Sasaki.

The closures affected nine high schools, two middle schools and one elementary school.

When the district learned of a possible sickout, administrators began asking families to keep students home Friday, Sasaki said. On Thursday, the district sent out an email to discourage teachers from participating in what it described as an “illegal” action.

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The teachers union, Oakland Education Assn., did not sanction or become involved in the sickout.

The teachers say they are asking for pandemic safety measures that other school districts have implemented, including providing medical-grade masks for students and staff and requiring testing. Teachers also called for high-grade air filters in common spaces, such as gymnasiums and cafeterias; extra support for school nurses; and no budget cuts to student services. Sasaki said the district has already added air purifiers to classrooms and common spaces across the district.

The teachers who organized the sickout are also asking the district to implement two weeks of remote instruction to put the safety measures in place, said Jordan Blumberg-Long, a social science teacher at Skyline High School in Oakland.

“I don’t know a single teacher who wants to go remote 100%. This is just an effort so that we can reduce transmission,” Blumberg-Long said. “We all know that in-person instruction is way better, but right now, that’s just not happening because we have so many people out.”

The idea emerged among teachers without union involvement, Blumberg-Long said. She estimated that about 500 teachers participated. At Skyline High, which has about 1,500 students, 100 of 110 teachers called in sick, she said.

When school began Monday, more than 20 teachers were absent, she said. Monday evening, after teaching six classes, Blumberg-Long tested positive for the coronavirus. Since the start of the week, she said, the number of students and teachers on campus has dwindled, making in-person instruction inconsistent.

“We have half our kids missing; we have half our teachers missing,” Blumberg-Long said.

On Thursday, the Oakland Education Assn. and the district came to an agreement to offer extended coronavirus leave to teachers. Blumberg-Long said she had to use personal sick days after testing positive.

“It is critical that Oakland Unified take additional steps by distributing better masks to all students and providing coronavirus testing sufficient to support full-time, in-person learning during an upsurge in cases,” the union said in a statement.

Sasaki said the school district, which has mandated proof of vaccination for all staff and students 12 and older, has continued to implement safety measures.

“We do feel like we’ve got protections in place that are working,” he said.

The absences gained support from some high school students, who circulated a petition asking for a temporary return to distance learning during the surge and increased safety measures — and threatened to skip school Jan. 18.

“In order to ensure a safe learning environment, we demand you give us N95 masks and weekly PCR testing,” the petition states. “If these demands are not met we will be striking by not attending school. We will be striking until we get what we need to be safe.”

It’s unclear if the teacher sickout will continue.


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