Oakland Students Begin School Boycott As District's Attempt To Avert Strike Fails

Students in Oakland, California, are set to boycott classes starting Tuesday over demands for stronger COVID-19 safety protocols in their school district.

More than 1,200 students in the Oakland Unified School District have signed a petition demanding the district move to remote learning unless it provides twice-weekly rapid and PCR testing in schools, KN95 or N95 masks to every student and expands seating so students can eat lunch outdoors.

The petition said the district had until January 17 to meet the demands, or students would stop attending school from Tuesday in what they described as a strike that would last until their demands are met.

The school district had attempted to avert the strike, with John Sasaki, director of communications for the school district, telling Newsweek that it was working on meeting the students' demands.

It comes after students across the country, including in Chicago, Boston and New York City, staged walkouts last week to protest inadequate COVID-19 safety measures and push for remote instruction.

Teachers protest for COVID safety
Teachers protest for stronger COVID-19 safety protocols outside Oakland Unified School District headquarters on January 7, 2022, in Oakland, California. Noah Berger/AP Photo

Ayleen Serrano, Ximena Santana and Benjamin Rendon— sophomores at MetWest High School in Oakland—told The Mercury News they started the petition after seeing a surge of COVID-19 cases, driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant, following the return to school after the winter break.

Serrano told the newspaper that she went into a ninth-grade class after the break to find only two other students there. "That's when I was like, 'We really need to get things done since the district isn't doing anything,'" she said.

The school district has since tried to reassure students, with Sasaki saying it was "already meeting" or "in the process of meeting" most of the demands in the petition.

He said the district has ordered 200,000 KN95 masks for students that "will be distributed to students as soon as they are delivered," and that 10,000 KN95 masks that were received as a donation last week were also being distributed to students.

Sasaki also said the district has ordered supplies for covered eating spaces at dozens of schools, but that supply-line issues had slowed delivery of certain items. "Where deliveries have been made, our staff is already installing these structures at schools, and this process will continue as we receive more of the supplies," he said.

Rendon told The Mercury News that many students at his school eat their lunch on benches at a nearby Whole Foods. The benches at the school are "broken and are really little so they can fit probably six people and we just want more space to eat," he said.

Serrano added that students simply want to hold the district accountable for delivering what has been promised. "It's just us telling the district to give us what they are saying they have been giving us because we haven't received it," she said.

Santana said teachers had tried to distribute KN95 masks and at-home COVID-19 tests they received to students, until they were told not to by officials.

Sasaki said staff aren't allowed to administer tests without training, according to the paper.

He earlier told Newsweek that schools have testing available to students at 10 hubs across the district, as well as bi-weekly drop-in testing at secondary schools and pooled testing at elementary schools.

The district had also urged students to use the extended weekend to get vaccinated.

"Amid the current COVID surge, we strongly encourage everyone to use the extra time off to get vaccinated (and boosted) and tested," the district said in a news release on Thursday. "We are doing everything we can to make testing available over the long weekend."

The petition organizers and the school district have been contacted for additional comment.