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By Gabriella Landeros

Amid this pandemic, Oakland educators are approaching two and a half years since striking for the schools that Oakland students deserve. Though class sizes have improved and annual turnover for educators is just half what it was pre-strike, today educators are facing a different issue – a pandemic-induced staffing shortage. This causes a lot of stress, especially when teachers are out sick, and substitutes are not available. The staffing shortage extends to other school employees, too, such as custodians represented by AFSCME Local 257 who are shouldering increased expectations due to COVID-19. At a time where there should be more support and resources, students are receiving the brunt of that disinvestment.

Every school staff member is a critical part of a successful school ecosystem. This is why the Oakland Education Association (OEA) and school staff represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021 have teamed up to call on Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) management to immediately increase student and family safety through, weekly COVID-19 testing options, HEPA filtration in cafeterias, better outdoor dining spaces, and filling all vacancies, among other measures.

Though there has been a lot accomplished through HEPA filters in every classroom, district-sponsored regional COVID-19 testing sites, on-campus vaccine clinics, soap and/or sanitizer in all classrooms, at least some outdoor dining space at all schools, and portable drum fans to increase ventilation in cafeterias, OEA and SEIU Local 21 strongly believe that the district needs to accommodate for the colder months ahead so students are not crammed in poorly ventilated spaces during their breaks and lunch.

“Even though students are back in the classroom, and COVID-19 case rates are down, we know we cannot take classroom safety or the progress we have made combatting this pandemic for granted. There are still many safety issues within OUSD that need to be addressed, and if we do not resolve them now, we are worried for the safety of our students in the coming months. We are proud of our partnership with SEIU Local 1021 because if history has taught us anything, is that there is greater strength in numbers” said OEA President Keith Brown.

OEA President Keith Brown and educators in front of Melrose Leadership Academy, calling for safe, fully staffed, and adequately funded schools.

OEA President Keith Brown and educators in front of Melrose Leadership Academy, calling for safe, fully staffed, and adequately funded schools.

“Some of what we’re advocating for include stricter testing protocols to make sure that isolated cases don’t become outbreaks; extending the supplemental sick leave provided by Senate Bill 95 that expired at the end of September, so that no one has to choose between keeping our students and colleagues safe and paying their bills; and protocols and mechanisms to ensure that, as we head into colder months, we have policies and protocols in place to keep our kids safe, warm, and comfortable during nutrition breaks. We are glad very glad to be on the same page as the educators of OEA in these priorities–our voices are stronger together,” said Donneva Reid, principal account clerk and vice president of SEIU Local 1021.

OEA and SEIU Local 1021 have been working together for safe, adequately funded, and fully staffed schools year-around. It is a priority for all workers – because when one succeeds, we all succeed. Educators and staff are overworked and in desperate need of more hands every day, not just when it is convenient for OUSD. The number of educators and staff who run the school, along with the type of safety protocols in place, are often overlooked.

And this isn’t the first time both unions have worked together. Historically, both have consistently reached agreements for safety measures that meet or exceed local, state, and federal guidance because of the disproportionate impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). Agreements include a community-informed plan for a safe and healthy return to school prioritizing BIPOC students and their families.

Members from the OEA and SEIU Local 1021 leadership teams on a virtual meeting to discuss ongoing organizing efforts for safe, fully staffed, and adequately funded schools.

Members from the OEA and SEIU Local 1021 leadership teams on a virtual meeting to discuss ongoing organizing efforts for safe, fully staffed, and adequately funded schools.

“County-wide statistics don’t tell the whole story, and we have also seen how case numbers can fall for weeks, only to jump up again unexpectedly. Now is the time to get our protocols in order, along with mechanisms to uphold them and the equipment, like outdoor heaters and overhangs to allow more students to eat outside without being piled on top of each other, before winter gets here and we face a potential surge,” said OEA Second Vice President Chaz Garcia.

“While students, staff, and educators are all required to wear masks both indoors and outdoors on school grounds, so far, there has been no consistent mechanism to uphold these mandates,” explained Phyllis Copes, an administrative assistant and president of SEIU Local 1021’s OUSD chapter. “That results in too many instances where students continually remove their masks or refuse to wear them, exposing their classmates, educators, and staff, with no real accountability.”

Organizing efforts have picked up with OEA’s Safety Bargaining Team holding a rally on October 6 before an OUSD Board of Education meeting. Hundreds of educators, along with SEIU Local 1021 members, chanted, held signs, and marched in solidarity. The only way to change these conditions is to organize and fight for safer conditions in our schools. Educators, staff, families, and students are ready to fight to keep our schools safe.

“The only way we will change these conditions is to organize and fight for safer conditions in our schools. Educators, staff, families, and students are ready to fight to keep our schools safe,” said OEA Safety Bargaining Team Co-Chair Sarah Goudy.

“We need OUSD management to come to the bargaining table now — safety cannot wait. The health and lives of our students, staff, and families are on the line and OUSD management needs to treat this with the seriousness it deserves,” said OEA Safety Bargaining Team Co-Chair Megan Bumpus.

Even with the increase in funding, OUSD has historically mismanaged funds. It is critical they prioritize safe, welcoming schools so all students can thrive. This is the reality that our students, educators, and communities face. We need to do better. Our students deserve better.

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