At the end of the first week of January, as Covid-19 surged through the country’s newly reopened schools, a group of students at the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) came together to demand “a safe learning environment.” In a public letter, the students made it clear that they are “not comfortable going to school with the rising cases” and demanded that the district provide them with basic Covid protections—including KN95/N95 masks for every student, twice-weekly PCR and rapid tests, and more outdoor spaces so kids could eat safely—or let them return to online learning. “If these demands are not met, we will be striking by not attending school,” the letter reads. “We will be striking until we get what we need to be safe.”
The letter has been signed by over 1,200 students, and their efforts have inspired similar actions around the country. On January 18, Oakland students followed through on their promise to boycott school should the district fail to provide the necessary Covid-19 protections.
I talked to organizers Ayleen Serrano and Nikayla Dean, both 15-year-old sophomores at Oakland’s MetWest High School, about their efforts to make their school safe. What follows are excerpts from our conversation.
On going to high school during a pandemic:
AS: I started high school online. It was very hard at first. I had been in in-person school my whole life and then, “OK, we’re going to close down for a couple days, and we expect a week to two weeks in online school.” Then, out of nowhere, we did a whole year of online school.
Last August, when we started going back to in-person school, it was kind of normal. Yeah, you’ll see the kids with masks, and that was a little bit weird…. There were still cases here and there. [But] I didn’t really see it till after winter break, when there was a big outburst of Covid cases.
ND: When we came back from winter break, my parents were even more iffy about it because of the variant and the rising cases. It’s not just going to school, but going to school, being around people, and then bringing it back home. And then my mom has to go to work. My dad has to go to work. They interact with people who have kids, so it’s not just me…. That was something we had a conversation about.
AS: In my classroom, there were two students who just got told they couldn’t come back. For the ninth graders, they went from eight students to two students…. Classrooms are empty, hallways are empty.
On deciding to take action to make their school safe:
ND: We came back to school on Monday, and there was a rise in cases, so it was something we basically talked about as soon as class started: “How do you feel about this?” Everybody was kind of in groups, and we all came up with ideas…. Ayleen and one of my classmates came up with the idea of maybe doing a boycott or strike.
AS: That’s kind of how it all started. For the petition, we knew we couldn’t just drag out of nowhere, “These are the demands”—you can’t even call them demands because, in reality, they’re just things that the district promised us. And we started the petition. And then we started posting it on social media, and that’s how we started getting attention.
I was very shocked that we were able to get help from other kids and that we’re almost to the 1,000-mark of signatures. It amazes me that we got so much attention.
AS: Besides the strike, we’re also doing a sick-out. [Administrators said that] someone just donated 10 million KN95 masks, could we call off the sick-out? No, we will not do that. Same with the strike. Just because you guys are giving us one of our demands, we won’t be calling it off because that’s just meeting one of them. This really won’t stop till they give us all our demands. We do not have faith in them because they’ve been promising us mass weekly testing for the past two or three months, and we haven’t seen it—we still aren’t seeing it. So we don’t have faith in that.
On inspiring other students:
ND: This started with the OUSD, but it kind of moved everywhere. We’ve gotten e-mails from Canada, Texas, Florida, asking to use ours as a template. People are offering support, to sign their names. It’s amazing to see.
AS: I never would have imagined I’d be doing this. I didn’t think even in my wildest dreams, I would have started a movement. So it’s definitely shocking that I’m doing so much and accomplishing things.
At first, I did kind of hide it from [my parents], but then I was asked to be interviewed for KRON4, so I kind of had to tell them. They were a little shocked. But then they came around, they were very supportive. They said, “make sure you don’t say things out of impulse, always double check your facts, make sure you know what you’re saying, that you’re not just making stuff up.” Besides that, they’ve been very supportive and understanding.
ND: My parents are cool with it. They support it. They think that it’s great that I’m doing something that I believe in, whether or not it has a consequence. I think they’re proud of me for fighting for something that I believe in, and just making sure that I’m safe.
I’m a very shy, nervous person. If you would have asked me even last year if I were to do something like this, I would say you were crazy. But I think that now that I’m doing it, it’s not as crazy as it seems. I don’t know how to express it. I’m doing it for a reason that I believe in.