Oakland teachers, staff call for increased voluntary COVID-19 testing

Oakland teachers and staff are calling for increased voluntary COVID-19 testing and other measures in order to minimize cases and outbreaks on school campuses and they held a demonstration Thursday afternoon to drive home their point.

Teachers and staff with Service Employees International Union Local 1021 and the Oakland Education Association demonstrated outside the Oakland Unified School District, calling on the district to "immediately increase student safety through voluntary weekly student testing, outdoor mealtimes, and improved ventilation in larger common areas, among other measures."   

The demand is in response to "an increasing number of positive COVID cases among students," union officials said.  

Currently, there are 86 student cases and 15 staff cases listed on the district's COVID dashboard for the week of Aug. 16, as well as seven classrooms in full at-home quarantine as of Thursday morning.   

All but one of the quarantined classrooms are at elementary schools, according to the dashboard.   

"Oakland schools have implemented multiple safety layers to protect students, families, and staff, but we are not living in the same reality of just six weeks ago," said OEA President Keith Brown. "Our community case rate has taken a turn for the worse -- it's 10 times higher now than when many of our safety policies and agreements were first developed." 

 Alameda County's 14-day total of new cases was 4,319 as of Monday, down from 5,247 on Aug. 18, according to the Public Health Department. 

On July 15, that number was 2,273 and on June 8 it was 455.   

The unions say that more than 1,000 teachers, parents and other community members have signed a petition calling on the school board to adopt a resolution from Board Director Mike Hutchinson that would initiate voluntary weekly testing at every campus across the district for all students and staff.   

The unions are also asking that more breakfast and lunch breaks are held outdoors, that social distancing is implemented in cafeterias, that industrial-size air purifiers are installed, that "a clear metric" is developed for triggering a response to dangerous air quality and that plans are put in place in the case of power outages that prevent the use of HEPA filters.   

District spokesman John Sasaki said OUSD is following the latest guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and that at-home COVID tests are available at all school sites for families that need them.   

The district also has a "rapid response" team that is sent to school sites after a positive case is discovered to do contact tracing and additional testing, Sasaki said in an email response Thursday.   

"OUSD has done more testing than any district in the state outside Los Angeles," he said.   "It is important to note that if we shift to deploying staff to do weekly testing at all schools, that will require us to redeploy Vestra (testing company) staff away from twice weekly testing that is required for modified quarantine testing," Sasaki said.