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Protesting Oakland teachers say COVID-19 crisis has amplified students' woes

A truck in the May Day caravan with a Spanish sign that reads "Keep DACA, get rid of Trump." | Photos: Zack Haber/Hoodline


By Zack Haber - Published on May 04, 2020.

On Friday morning, a caravan of over 300 cars and 50 cyclists gathered at the Port of Oakland for a socially distanced protest. The group included a variety of activists, including housing-rights advocates, prison abolitionists and essential workers in the health-care and grocery industries. 

But one group was especially vocal: Oakland public school educators, who say their students are facing compounding social pressures that make learning under lockdown impossible.

“There’s an expectation in school that kids should be able to achieve, regardless of their conditions," said Nick Palmquist, a humanities teacher and family guidance counselor at MetWest High School. "But students do not leave their living conditions at the door."

Nick Palmquist, a teacher and guidance counselor at MetWest High School.

From their perspective educating the city's children, Oakland educators see nearly every failing of society — and all of them have been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, they say.

“There’s a student at our school whose dad was picked up by ICE, just as this crisis was starting,” said Palmquist. With their mother unable to work, the student, a ninth-grader, is now the family’s main breadwinner.

“When you’re bringing that in, school is just not your focus," Palmquist said. "You’re thinking about all these other things so much more."

Many students are the children of the incarcerated, who face high risks of infection in prisons and jails that don't allow for social distancing. 

“Keeping people locked up in completely squalid conditions is a death sentence,” said Adi Hoang, a special education resource teacher at East Oakland Pride Elementary.

For the protest, she outfitted her car with signs calling for the release of ICE detainees, and for universal COVID-19 testing at all prisons and detention centers.

Adi Hoang, a special education resource teacher at East Oakland Pride Elementary, decorated her car with protest signs.

The children of essential workers are also under pressure, Palmquist said. Many of the Oakland Unified School District's families are low-wage workers in jobs that don't provide health insurance. A sizable number are undocumented. 

“So many of our students' families are the ones who do the essential work in the Bay Area,” said Palmquist. “When those folks are getting sick, it directly affects our students.”

Protester Mona Treviño, who has a child currently enrolled in Oakland schools and another who graduated from them, says that protesters are increasingly becoming aware of how all these issues overlap. 

“We all see the need to prioritize life and living over this economy,” she said.

Oakland teachers say that one of their biggest frustrations surrounds internet and computer access. While OUSD has shifted to online distance learning, kids without internet at home are out of luck.

Over 410 Oakland educators signed a recent open letter to OUSD Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell, the Oakland school board, Mayor Libby Schaaf and Oakland’s city council, calling for the city to provide universal internet. They’ve yet to hear a response.

“I have a couple of students who have been asking for internet access since the start of this crisis,” said Palmquist. “There’s been zero progress.”

In addition to a lack of digital learning tools, Hoang noted the crisis in housing, with high rents forcing many families into crowded homes where it's easy for young students to get distracted. 

“I try to teach online, and I have maybe a fifth of my students that have been able to access online learning,” she said.

Mike Hutchinson, who helped organize the caravan, has been working for nearly a decade to stop school closures and expand community control of schools through the Oakland Public Education Network (OPEN). 

He says parents, teachers and school staff want community control over how schools are reopened. 

“The community needs to have a list of requirements that OUSD needs to meet in order to reopen our schools, like full testing, protocols in place, and some kind of plan to bridge the lost class time we had," said Hutchinson, who’s currently running for the District 5 seat on the school board. 

Last spring, teachers walked off the job in Oakland for seven days, winning an 11 percent pay raise and a promise to hire more counseling support staff and school nurses. If schools aren't reopened in a way that educators approve, Hoang said, another teachers' strike could be a possibility. 

“A lot of it is going to fall on teachers to say 'We’re not going back,'" Hoang said. "We’re not going back without protections for ourselves, protections for our communities, and assurance that our schools and our students' lives will not continue to be ravaged by this in ways that are completely unnecessary."

“The people who decide how we reopen schools, how we make sure kids get access to learning, should be teachers.”

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