'We've got to do everything we can:' Oakland mayor pushes to reopen schools in January

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who has two children in public school, said Wednesday morning that she is pushing for schools to reopen in January. 

"We have got to get these schools open," Schaaf said in one-on-one interview with KTVU. "But we have to do it in a way that our teachers and our staff members feel safe." 

She said she has joined other big-city mayors to form a group to "apply pressure" on the stakeholders to steer diagnostic coronavirus tests to teachers so that they can have more of a "sense of comfort" when schools reopen. 

She acknowledged that OUSD has a labor agreement with the teachers union through the end of the calendar year. 

"But I am very hopeful and working in deep partnership with school officials to try and get our schools open by this January," she said. "We know these kids will never get this year back in terms of their education. But we've got to do everything we can."

But turning the mayor's hopes into reality might be an uphill battle.

New York had opened schools in September but then had to hundreds because of coronavirus upticks. And on Wednesday, Boston schools announced that they are suspending the reopening of campuses because of a surge of coronavirus infections. 

Closer to home, Oakland-based groups including Equal Opportunity Now and By Any Means Necessary held a car caravan rally Wednesday afternoon at East Oakland Pride Elementary, opposing any in-person classroom return in the near future.

"We reject any face-to-face instruction including a hybrid model or any plan to make Special Education and ESL students into guinea pigs for the virus by returning to dangerous face to face instruction in pods," the groups said in a news release.

Earlier this week, the Oakland Education Association Representative Council passed a resolution stating its opposition to these plans.

"It's irresponsible to set a date. What science shows is COVID has ebbs and flows. And it's not adhering to a date," said Chastity Garcia, OEA vice president. Garcia said there are some classrooms that don't even have windows, prompting concern over proper ventilation. 

The teachers are demanding that before in-person learning can happen COVID infection rates in Oakland must be at near zero for 14 days in all zip codes. They also want the promise of personal protective equipment.

And even the president of the school board, which has the power to make the school reopening decision - not the mayor - said she felt Schaaf's goals were overly ambitious. 

 "I think January is too soon," Roseann Torres said. "And I have heard internally within the district we are talking about the next school year, next fall. And we don't know if that is too soon." 

However, Schaaf's hopes coincide with what Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s Health and Human Services secretary, told reporters on Tuesday: California has not seen a link between the reopening of K-12 schools for in-person learning and increased coronavirus transmission. 

Ghaly said it can take time for trends to emerge, but so far, the results are encouraging.

“We have not seen a connection between increased transmission and school reopening or in-person learning,” Ghaly said. “We’re looking at the information to see if there is a connection, and so far we have not found one.”

California requires counties to report coronavirus levels and infection rates below certain thresholds before they can allow K-12 schools to broadly reopen for in-person instruction. On Tuesday, 32 of the state’s 58 counties were deemed eligible to do so — up from 28 a week earlier. On Tuesday night, the Piedmont school board voted to allow student sto return to the classroom, beginning with K-2 students starting on Nov. 3. 

The state has seen a broad decline in the number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks. While some areas are seeing an increase in infections, the state’s overall case numbers have fallen since a surge over the summer following the initial reopening of various business sectors.

Schools have been allowed to reopen in many smaller California counties as well as more populated ones such as Orange and San Diego. In those counties still barred from resuming broad in-person instruction, some schools have obtained special waivers from the state to let elementary students return to classrooms, and many campuses throughout the state have resumed in-person special education classes and daycare programs.

Los Angeles County, which has the largest population in the state, still can’t broadly allow for in-person instruction, but this week began taking applications for limited waivers to reopen transitional kindergarten through second-grade classrooms.

KTVU's Rob Roth, Mike Mibach and the Associated Press contributed to this report.