Across the country and the world, unsafe Covid-19 protocols for schools have provoked protests and walkouts among teachers, students, and parents. In January, Chicago teachers voted to resume remote learning rather than return to unsafe working conditions — prompting Democratic mayor Lori Lightfoot to lock them out of their classes and threaten to stop paying them. In France, tens of thousands of public education workers protested across the country on January 13 in a nationwide strike against what the movement has characterized as “chaotic” government Covid-19 policies that keep schools open as “daycare” for the country’s bosses. In parts of Paris, students and parents have joined teachers to barricade the entries to high schools as part of the actions.
Last week, Left Voice spelled out a powerful working-class program for safe school reopenings.
A New Chapter in Oakland’s Struggle
Throughout the pandemic, Oakland, California has been no stranger to the struggle against school system administrators putting business interests first. But now Oakland teachers, students, and parents are confronting another challenge to education: severe budget cuts in the middle of the pandemic. The plans of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) have already prompted a walkout and a hunger strike.
On Tuesday, February 1, teachers and students at Westlake Middle School staged a walkout after the school board announced it would close some schools in the face of a projected budget shortfall of $50 million next school year. When schools are shuttered, it almost always means students have to commute longer distances and that their already overcrowded classrooms become even worse.
Parents joined the protesters, who marched down Broadway — one of the city’s main thoroughfares — to OUSD headquarters. “The large group of protesters, equipped with signs stating, ‘Hands off our schools’ [were met with] the sounds of honks and cheers from sympathetic passersby,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle.
There are six schools on the board’s closure list for next academic year; a few others, including Westlake, are being forced to merge. On top of that, there’s another list being developed of schools that will be forced to close by 2024.
Westlake has a 96 percent minority enrollment, with Black students making up 51 percent of its students.
It should come as no surprise that communities of color will be most affected, as Oakland school superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell admitted at a board meeting. “This is not easy for me to present this information, especially knowing that African American students and families will be the most impacted,” she said.
Oakland’s population of 445,000 is 65 percent people of color, including large Black, Latinx, and Asian populations. Its white population, 35 percent, has grown considerably in the last decade or so, with the Black population being driven out by a process of gentrification that has encroached on even the poorest sections of the city, increasing rents sharply and driving huge numbers of working-class people out. This has led to the proliferation of “tent cities” of homeless people under highways and on the edges of parks — often within sight of the apartments they once called home.
As the San Jose Mercury News reported in 2020, “Nearly one-third of poor neighborhoods in Oakland … experienced gentrification between 2013 and 2017, the highest rate in the country.”
When the school board cites declining enrollment as a factor in its decision to close schools, what it’s really citing is that students and their families have been driven out by the lack of affordable housing. OUSD admits this, but talks first and foremost about lower birth rates and pandemic-related moves out of the district — because the Oakland business interests it serves don’t want the destruction of the school system tied to the luxury apartments and upscale stores they have been building over the past decade.
Taking to the Streets
In addition to Monday’s walkout at Westlake, community members held car caravan protests on Tuesday and Thursday that drove around the city to call attention to the closures and build for more mass actions.
Beyond these mass actions, two Westlake teachers have gone on hunger strikes. Maurice André San-Chez, a Westlake teacher and one of the organizers of the walkout, told reporters, “I’m doing this hunger strike because this is important; it needs to happen.”
He added, “I’m telling my students to stand up for what is right, to stand up against racism and to fight for their community.”
San-Chez has been joined in the hunger strike by Nick Sanshay, the school’s choir director who also leads Westlake’s gender and sexuality alliance.
A citywide protest rally is planned for this Saturday, and one of OUSD’s own district directors called for the public to join. “The community is outraged and horrified that Oakland Unified plans to close even more schools serving predominantly Black students,” VanCedric Williams told KRON4 TV. “We are calling on you to intervene and stop these racist school closures. Join us!”
Moses Omolade, a Westlake staffer who helped organize Tuesday’s protest, addressed the crowd and characterized hunger strikes and protests:
This is really to protect Black and brown bodies from harm. It’s unfortunate that an institution that’s supposed to put children first … that’s supposed to be equity-based makes these types of choices during a global pandemic with no community engagement.
All expectations are that walkouts will expand in the coming weeks, as the closure list becomes more definitive. A vote of the school board is scheduled for Tuesday, February 8.