Another ‘sickout’ set for Thursday over COVID

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Employees at some Oakland Unified School District schools will stage another “sickout” Thursday in solidarity with students, who are threatening to boycott classes unless their COVID demands are met during a surge in cases fueled by the omicron variant.

The student boycott is set to begin Tuesday unless the district moves in-person learning to online instruction and provides KN95 and N95 masks for every student in all schools, PCR and rapid testing twice a week and more outdoor spaces where the students can eat, according to a petition.

“There’s a lot of concerns regarding safety measures and how to protect us from COVID-19, especially the highly contagious omicron variant. We must go back to distance learning until the cases go down again,” the petition states.

The district says it is already trying to meet many of the student demands.

Even as the students threaten to stay home next week, dozens of teachers and staff members are continuing a sickout to push for similar measures the students are seeking and in solidarity with the students.

Twenty-five teachers and support staff at Frick United Academy of Language called out sick Wednesday and are set to call out again on Thursday, according to Frick teacher Ella Every-Wortman, who teaches 8th grade humanities and participated in the “sickout.” At Frick United, 22 people have tested positive for COVID since returning from winter break and some classes have reported between 25 to 75 percent of their students being absent, according to Every-Wortman. Sixteen staff members were absent on Monday. The school currently has around 330 students enrolled.

Frick United employees have asked for a mandatory school-wide quarantine if there are three or more positive COVID cases in a two-week period, weekly PCR testing, N95 masks for all staff and students and a vaccine clinic at Frick before Jan. 31 to provide access to vaccines.

Teachers and staff from Montera Middle School, Madison Park Academy Upper 6-12, Skyline High School, Claremont Middle School and Roosevelt Middle School are also participating in the “sickout” on Thursday in order to demand for more COVID safety measures. The action comes after more than 500 OUSD employees called out sick last week and held a car caravan, resulting in at least a dozen schools in the district being shut down for instruction.

The student online petition, which has been signed by more than 1,100 students as of Wednesday, and has given the district until Jan. 17 to meet their demands. If their demands aren’t met, the students say they will boycott in-person classes starting Jan. 18 by not going to school. The letter was sent Friday to district officials, school board members and Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammel.

OUSD officials said in a Wednesday press release that the district received 10,000 masks and will be distributing KN95 masks to all high school students after getting a donation from Oakland restauranteur Euge Lee. The district said masks will be delivered to all high schools in time for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.

The district also said that 200,000 KN95 masks were ordered for students last week and KN95 and N95 masks were distributed to school sites so every employee had at least three N95 masks and two KN95 masks, according to a news release. Another 50,000 KN95 masks will be delivered to sites this week, officials said, adding that at least three HEPA filters have also been installed in every cafeteria, along with two large fans.

“What we’ve seen so far is there’s a difference between what OUSD reports they’re doing and the actual materials people receive on site,” Every-Wortman said. “After speaking with teachers at various schools, some of us have received the N95 masks promised by the district but not everyone. At my site, we received three masks per teacher but then the question is, when do we get more masks? And will this delivery continue?”

But the district says the sickouts are hurting students and their families.

“Unauthorized sickouts, especially on short notice, create unnecessary challenges for families who still need to work and may not have easy access to child care,” district communications director John Sasaki said in a news release. “For older, more independent students, it can present additional challenges because they may not stay home, and instead mix with others outside their normal circle.”

Sasaki said in a previous statement that “supply line issues” have delayed the delivery of supplies for covered eating spaces at the schools, including tables and shade structures. Sasaki also said that testing is available for students through ten hubs across the district, weekly pooled testing at elementary schools and bi-weekly testing for secondary schools. The district is offering vaccine pop-ups this month at multiple locations.

“We are already meeting, or are in the process of meeting, most of the demands noted in this petition,” he said. “And we will continue to work towards fulfilling the rest in the coming weeks.”

Sasaki previously said the district “sees no problem” with the at-home rapid tests that have been sent home with students and doesn’t believe they’re less accurate than PCR testing. A recent study contends that some antigen tests, including Quidel’s QuickVue and Abbott’s BinaxNOW, missed detecting the omicron variant during the first days of infection.

“We had a testing date on Monday and 17 cases were found,” Every-Wortman said. “That shows how important testing is. Every two weeks is not enough and science is showing that rapid tests are not as accurate at detecting the omicron variant, so we’d like to be seeing weekly PCR testing.”

Every-Wortman said the district didn’t impose a quarantine at Frick United in light of the new COVID cases and emphasized the need for one in order to prevent community spread. She added that the 22 COVID cases doesn’t include the other students and staff who have been absent due to illness.

“Our school site is not safe right now,” Every-Wortman said. “We have high numbers of COVID cases and exposure and we also have inadequate staffing given that so many of our teachers and staff have been out with illness or caring with members of their family who are ill. We have expressed concerns with safety all year long and at this point, the district isn’t proactively and responsibly to keeping our community safe. Because our school isn’t being placed in quarantine by the district, we decided to quarantine ourselves.”

Staff writer Kayla Jimenez contributed to this report.

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