Bay Area teachers push for more remote options; state says that should be last resort

Educators at more Bay Area schools are planning sickouts this week: They say the move is needed to put pressure on school districts to provide more COVID safety measures.

Families at Montera Middle School in Oakland, for example, got a note from teachers explaining that many of them won't be at school on Thursday.

The letter explains why they're not coming to school: "A sickout is an act of defiance in which large numbers of teachers and/or staff call in sick. We must push our superintendent, school board directors, and Oakland Unified School District to drastically improve health and safety conditions in Oakland schools."

The school district said it's preparing for another unauthorized" sickout on Thursday, though it's unclear how many schools will be impacted.

Nonetheless, the district said sickouts do more harm than good to students and families.

"Unauthorized sick outs, especially on short notice, create unnecessary challenges for families who still need to work and may not have easy access to child care," OUSD said in a statement. "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. 

Teachers across Oakland Unified are calling on the district to provide everyone with KN-95 or other medical-grade masks, weekly COVID testing on campus and an emergency plan in case there isn't enough staff.

At Frick United Academy of Language in the Oakland Unified School District, teachers called for a "sick-out for school safety" Jan. 12 and 13. One of the demands was to have the school go into mandatory quarantine anytime there are three or more COVID cases at the school.

The sickout letters encouraged parents to keep their kids home on Thursday, in support of their sickout. This would be the second sickout at Oakland Unified. There is also no school on Friday, and no school on Monday in honor of Martin Luther King.

In response to those demands, OUSD Superintendent said the district is in the process of getting 200,000 KN95 masks for OUSD students and is adding air filters to OUSD cafeterias and common rooms.

Late Wednesday afternoon, the school district announced that it had reached a tentative agreement with the Oakland teachers' union that focuses on COVID safety. The agreement includes a non-work wellness day set for Jan 14, which originally was supposed to be a professional development day. Teachers can now use that time for self-care, to get vaccinations or boosters.

Also part of the agreement is extended COVID leave through the end of the school year.

Educators at other Bay Area school districts are calling for similar actions.

MORE: As omicron surges, more Bay Area school sickouts are planned for this week

There was a teacher sickout planned Wednesday at Stege Elementary School in Richmond. By noon, however, only seven teachers had participated. 

In response to the recent actions, Kenneth Chris Hurst, the superintendent of the West Contra Costa District, said in a statement:  "Employees coordinating with one another to call in sick together is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. This type of action is not helpful and exacerbates our current issues, causing immense challenges for the remaining school community who do show up."

And at Korematsu Middle School in El Cerrito, families got a similar note earlier this week saying teachers would be out on Tuesday. 

They also called for KN-95 masks and increased testing. However, a WCCUSD spokesperson told KTVU that nine teachers called in sick on Tuesday, but all returned by Wednesday. 

District spokesman Ryan Phillips said that WCCUSD already provides onsite weekly testing at Korematsu and it's one of the few districts in the state to provide weekly school-site testing. He also said employees were provided KN-95 masks and students with surgical masks. 

The state is paying close attention. 

"It's clear that some districts are reaching the breaking point," said Troy Flint, spokesperson for the California School Boards Association in Sacramento, which represents just about all of the state's 1,000 or so school districts.

He said there is a push among districts to ask California leaders for more flexibility to revert to remote learning if they're facing staffing shortages.

"I know many people are still resentful for the long period kids weren't on campus for the past two years... but this is actually a very different circumstance, closing schools or going to remote learning is an absolute resort in this case."

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Flint said the sickouts appear to be happening mostly in urban, Bay Area school districts but that statewide, school districts are experiencing staff shortages of 15-20 percent because of COVID.

"They're doing everything they can to try and stay open," Flint said. "Many districts are pushing for the state to declare unequivocally that they would accept waivers if districts can establish they needed to switch to remote learning because of staffing shortages."

Flint said school districts hope that by opening "learning hubs" - a supervised place on campus where students could log on to online classes - they would still qualify for "average daily attendance" funding from the state. This is what the Hayward Unified School district is doing this week. All students have switched to distance learning, but the district is providing six designated learning hubs at school sites.

One of the biggest challenges during a sickout is finding enough substitutes to supervise kids during staff shortages.

On Tuesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order making it easier for school districts to hire subs but that will take time to be fully implemented.