Oakland Teachers Pledge Stimulus Checks to Undocumented Families Left Out of Coronavirus Aid

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At least eight teachers at Bridges Academy, including some making less than $50,000 per year, have pledged all or part of their stimulus checks to a fund for undocumented parents. (Courtesy of Anita Iverson-Comelo)

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As the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the state’s economy, a group of teachers and principals in Oakland are pledging their federal stimulus checks to undocumented families at their schools who are excluded from such aid.

The educators at the Oakland Unified School District launched the Stimulus Pledge campaign Thursday in response to the enormous stress and despair they say they are witnessing among immigrant parents who have lost all income under shelter-in-place orders, but are left out of unemployment insurance and many other benefits.

“We are in contact with our families every day and what we are hearing is heartbreaking,” said Anita Iverson-Comelo, a principal at Bridges Academy at Melrose, in East Oakland. “We feel like we have to do something.”

At least eight teachers at Bridges Academy, including some making less than $50,000 per year, have pledged all or part of their stimulus checks, said Iverson-Comelo. She and six other principals, whose higher salaries might disqualify them from the coronavirus federal cash aid, also plan to donate.

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Iverson-Comelo estimates about two thirds of the families at her school, which mostly serves low-income students in preschool to fifth grade, have no earnings now. Most of those parents don’t qualify for unemployment insurance or stimulus checks, she said.

Maria, the mother of a fourth grader at Bridges Academy, said her family’s financial situation turned dire after her husband, a waiter at a Berkeley hotel, was furloughed nearly a month ago.

Maria is one of the parents of about 14,000 students OUSD officials say are picking free “grab and go” meals at designated schools each Monday and Thursday. But she fears her family won’t be able to pay their $1,100 rent next month, and other bills.

“I’m worried. I don’t know what's going to happen next month, and how long this will continue,” said Maria, a homemaker who, along with her husband, has lived in the U.S. for more than 11 years. Two of their daughters, ages 5 and 10, are U.S. citizens.

Maria said she was saddened the federal government left out millions of undocumented immigrants from the stimulus package even if they pay taxes, as her husband does through an Individual Tax Identification Number. The number allows the Internal Revenue Service to collect billions of dollars in annual contributions from immigrants without a social security number.

But upon hearing of the Stimulus Pledge campaign, Maria said she felt encouraged and hopeful the effort by local educators could make a big difference in the undocumented community.

“I am grateful they are fighting and watching out for us, because we are all human beings,” she said.

Hundreds of educators in San Francisco are also pledging their stimulus checks to undocumented immigrants.

The effort by Bay Area educators comes as Gov. Gavin Newsom said he and state legislators are considering emergency economic aid for the unauthorized immigrants in California hard hit by the pandemic and economic slowdown.

Cassandra Chen, a middle school math and science teacher at United for Success Academy in Oakland, said she was compelled to pledge her stimulus check after daily calls with students and their families once in-person classes were cancelled.

She quickly realized most were struggling to secure enough food or pay rent, and that many parents did not qualify for the safety net programs available to other residents.

“I wish a stimulus package in the wealthiest nation in the world [would] have just taken care of all of the human beings in this global pandemic. But it doesn't include a lot of our community,” she said.

Under the $2.2 trillion stimulus package signed by President Donald Trump last month, single taxpayers earning $75,000 or less should automatically receive a one-time payment of up to $1,200. Married couples filing jointly are eligible for checks of up to $2,400, with an additional $500 for each child under 17.

Although Chen said her teacher salary “is not amazing by any stretch of the imagination,” she feels economically stable compared to many of her students’ families because she is still getting paid for her work.

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“I mean, I could certainly use $1,200, but I don't need it. And many families in our community do desperately,” said Chen, who invites others who can spare their stimulus checks to donate.

The Stimulus Pledge campaign is partnering with the Oakland Public Education Fund, a non-profit, to garner and distribute the funds promised by participants, said principal Iverson-Comelo.

Other Oakland schools participating in the campaign are Emerson Elementary, Esperanza Elementary, International Community School, Manzanita SEED and Melrose Leadership Academy.

Officials at Oakland Unified said the initiative is an example of the dedication teachers, principals and other staff has for students in need.

“We support this amazing and compassionate work they are doing,” said John Sasaki, a spokesman for OUSD. “As Oakland always does, we are rallying around our families to support them in every way we can.”

OUSD has also established the COVID-19 Rapid Relief Fund to support vulnerable students and families.