Demonstrators paint the sidewalk outside the Alameda County Office of Education during a protest calling for COVID-safe and racially just schools in Hayward on Jan. 21, 2022. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)
Teachers at Oakland’s Reach Academy were fed up.
The elementary school on the eastern edge of the city has been overwhelmed by positive COVID cases since returning from winter break — the Oakland Unified School District’s dashboard tallies nearly 80 cases there in the first three weeks back.
Teachers were desperate to stop more students and coworkers from turning up positive, but while some of their colleagues around the district planned sick-outs, Reach Academy staff hatched a plan to catch cases before kids entered the building.
“We decided, we're the teachers, we know how this works. Let's just see if our families will do this,” said fifth grade teacher Megan Bumpus.
She and her colleagues knew a district testing team would be on campus Tuesday, after the MLK holiday, until midday. But they wanted to ensure kids got swabbed before sitting down in a classroom, or eating breakfast in the cafeteria, where positive students would have a chance to infect others while unmasked. So, without approval from administrators, they designed a staggered arrival schedule. “We said to the principal, ‘This is what we're doing. We are already sending these messages,’” Bumpus said.
Teachers alerted parents in advance, and gave those who couldn’t manage it the option to drop kids off early. “We made it so that we literally stayed outside until we were sure that each child in our class tested negative,” she said. She credits the district for sending extra staff to support the effort, though it wasn’t condoned.
“For the first time ever, we literally had — at least according to the rapid tests — only kids and adults in school who had tested negative,” she said. “The peace of mind that we felt on Tuesday was amazing.”
Whether Reach Academy’s unsanctioned testing strategy curbs new cases remains to be seen. Transmission rates have generally been low in schools when mitigation protocols are followed, with most spread taking place in less controlled community contexts. But the action speaks to a broader need for a sense of safety and stability. It came amid a second week of student and staff protests in the district, with some students striking in an effort to force the district to improve safety measures, while teachers at some sites held sick-outs.
The pressure has seen some success: The district and teachers union worked out a plan to reinstate paid COVID sick leave, something teachers had been demanding, and it emboldened the Oakland Education Association to flex some muscle in negotiations for a new safety agreement with the district. OEA President Keith Brown now has approval from union leadership to call a strike vote if he deems it necessary, and nearly three-quarters of members told the union they’d support the action.
OUSD has distributed N95 or KN95 masks for students and staff, something both the union and student organizers are demanding, and is working to provide covered outdoor eating areas at all sites, efforts officials say were underway before the pressure.
But the demand teachers and students say they care most about — increased testing — isn’t getting much traction.
“Testing is the most important demand of the students and the staff and the wider community,” said Sasha Rockwell, who teaches third and fourth grades at Bridges Academy at Melrose in East Oakland, where staff held a sick-out. Rockwell would like to see a “test to stay” policy along the lines of what Reach Academy teachers pulled off. She argues it’s key to avoiding unnecessary learning loss.
“Before coronavirus, a child would come to me with an invisible boo-boo and I'd be like, ‘Let me rub it and it's going to be OK. Get back in the school,’ you know?”
Now, she said, everyday ailments trigger pandemic precautions.
“A child comes to me with a headache, well, that's a symptom of COVID, so they need to go to the isolation tent. A child comes to me with a stomachache, same,” she said. “We don't have a system in place to ensure that kids can stay in school for the maximum amount possible.”
Student organizers are advocating for twice-weekly rapid and PCR tests at all schools; the teachers union is pushing for weekly testing at all sites. But the district has not announced any plans to further ramp up testing.
“Obviously there are capacity issues at work, but we are doing everything we can to ensure the testing is available at all times,” district spokesperson John Sasaki said. “We are following the public health experts at both the county, state and federal level and feel that we are moving in the right direction with regard to testing and everything else.”
Beyond the issue of limited resources, it’s not clear more aggressive testing would meaningfully improve safety. UCSF professor and infectious disease specialist Peter Chin-Hong said layering strategies is the best approach, and vaccination remains the most important mitigation tool.
“At the end of the day, there is no magic bullet,” he said. “Whether you test once a week, twice a week, I'm not sure if you get a bigger bang for the buck when you add the other components.”
When there was less of the virus circulating in the community, it made more sense to think of testing as a way to stamp out infection, he said. “In the age of omicron, we've kind of abandoned virus elimination,” he said.
In fact, some local public health experts are petitioning state officials to accept that COVID is endemic and “shift our public dialogue toward defining a path for removing all remaining COVID-19 restrictions in public schools.”
What does testing look like in OUSD?
Oakland Unified runs 10 testing hubs at schools around the city. Four of the 10 are open on any given day, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and have been serving over 300 people a day during the surge, according to Sasaki.
For MetWest High School student Ximena Santana, who helped organize the student strike and petition calling for more testing, off-site testing isn’t enough. “Some people don’t have the time to go to a place and do it,” she said. “We need the weekly testing at schools.”
Bridges Academy teacher Rockwell points out that the hubs are largely open during school hours. “So this means that all OUSD students, teachers and staff do not have access to the testing unless they are at that school,” she said. “And working families who often work late into the evening do not have access to that testing.” For weekend and after-school testing, the district refers families to the county’s many free testing sites.
The district also runs a pilot pool testing program at 39 elementary schools. Students at these sites are tested at least once a week. Swabs are collected for entire classes and tested together in a single vial. If the pooled PCR test comes up positive, every student in the positive pool is then rapid-tested. Pooled testing can be cost-effective and reduces the burden on labs, according to Chin-Hong.
Both Bridges Academy and Reach Academy are part of the program, and, while teachers Rockwell and Bumpus are appreciative, they say implementation doesn't always go smoothly.
“Pool testing has been a positive change for us, but has it been consistent? Absolutely not,” Rockwell said. “Today was a perfect example. My principal did not get a message at all of why the pool testers did not come today. So here we are, left with nothing.”
The testing is optional and teachers say tracking down consent forms for all students can be tricky, leaving some classes with several students untested.
District officials say they also provide on-site rapid testing at schools with classes in modified quarantine. Theoretically, the more classes are affected, the more testing resources are dispatched. Modified quarantine applies to unvaccinated students who’ve been in close contact with someone who tests positive. To stay in school, they must get tested regularly.
Some middle and high school administrators and teachers describe weekly testing programs at their sites; others say they have testers on campus biweekly. Frick United Academy of Language teacher Ella Every-Wortman said her site is small enough to give all students a chance to swab when testers come every other week. “I know that is not the case at other sites,” she wrote in a text. “Another frequent issue is that they run out of tests.”
As for getting themselves tested on campus, some teachers say finding coverage to leave class during the narrow testing window in the middle of a severe staffing shortage is nearly impossible.
At Oakland Technical High School, students say they have access to voluntary on-site testing once a week on Thursdays. “The lines get extremely long and they're not really socially distanced. It's just kind of a cluster and the tests take forever,” said 10th grader Scarlett Welpton. “It's just not set up well.”
Welpton said she waited in line about an hour last week, and though the test only took a few seconds, it took almost another hour to get results, during which she wasn’t allowed to return to class. “Which means we're missing a lot of school,” she said.
Fellow Tech 10th grader Jasmina Garfagnoli has opted not to get tested at school. Instead, she uses the nearby testing hub at Oakland International High School, where she said lines are shorter, or she takes at-home tests. “It's so hard to get tested at school and to wait in line for an hour,” she said. “I think it's a very good thing that we have testing, but I just think that it needs to be revised a little bit.”
The district also distributed 41,000 at-home rapid tests for students and staff to use over winter break, but some students say they never saw them.
By now, most schools have gone through their supplies of rapid tests to use as needed. OUSD began placing orders for more rapid tests with the California Department of Public Health, Abbott and Office Depot beginning last fall, Sasaki said in an email, “but they were delayed because of the large supply set aside for the federal program to send at-home tests to all households.”
The district’s existing supply of at-home tests is being reserved for preschools, “where students are entirely unvaccinated and don't have easy access to hubs because of age limits,” according to Sasaki, and for student athletes, who are required to test regularly.
Last week, the student leaders behind the safety petition and strike held a virtual forum. For more than an hour, students and staff around the district shared stories of sick family members, empty classrooms, and anxiety as schoolmates tested positive. They expressed solidarity with striking students and thanked them for their work.
MetWest High School student Ayleen Serrano, who helped organize the boycott, told students to keep pressuring the district. “Not all the demands have been met. Some schools still do not have access to PCR or rapid testing,” she said.
She encouraged her peers to get involved in organizing and plans to hold another Zoom forum Thursday, Jan. 27. She said students will keep at the strike until there are better testing options at all schools.