By JR Valrey
The Los Angeles Unified School District has cut their school police force by a third, and moved $25 million to a Los Angeles Unified School District fund for Black Student Achievement. While the San Francisco Unified School District has been mired in a near-nuclear fallout involving Lowell High School’s racist white students and parents attacking the 2% Black student population regularly, the Oakland Unified School District is working on addressing reparations for Black students, for wrongs done specifically to Black students in the district. There is also a lot of talk of forced vaccinations and school re-openings.
Taiwo Kujichagulia Seitu is a performing arts teacher at Madison Park Academy, in Oakland. She is also a leader in the Oakland Education Association aka the teachers union, and a longstanding board member for the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. In this interview, I talk to her about this emerging progressive Black reparations movement in the Oakland Unified School District, that is a direct result of the George Floyd-Breonna Taylor rallies, the remove Oakland Police from the schools campaign, the Defund the Police campaign, and the Reparations for Black people campaign. We also spoke on vaccinations and school’s reopening. Check her out in her own words.
JR Valrey: Can you talk about the campaign for Reparations for Black students? Who is it made up of? And what’s its objectives?
Taiwo Kujichagulia Seitu: The campaign for Reparations for Black Students is to repair the harm that has been done to Black students, in the Oakland Unified School District. This is led by the Justice for Oakland Students Coalition of Black students, parents, educators, community members, school and district staff that see the harm that has been done to Black students, as a result of racism in education. People look at the word ‘reparations’ and they think ‘monetary compensation for slavery’, but this has nothing to do with slavery. It has to do with racist policies that have directly impacted Black students. In the past 20 years, OUSD has closed 16 schools. All of these schools had a predominantly Black population (over 60%). As a result, Black students and families have left the district by the thousands. In 1996 OUSD had a Black student population of 27,270 students.
In 2019 there were only 8,314 Black students in the district. Black students are suspended and expelled at disproportionately high rates. Black students are over-represented in special education, not because they are incapable of learning, but because they are being taught by teachers who do not know how to teach Black students. OUSD’s teacher population is over 70% white, while our district primarily serves Black and brown students. This campaign wants OUSD to prioritize recruiting and retaining Black educators. So when we talk about reparations for Black students, we are speaking of repairing the harm that had been done in the recent past and is still being done today. You can search https://reparationsforblackstudents.org/ for more information and to join the campaign.
This particular campaign addresses reparations, or repair, specifically in the injury area of education. We know that reparations is a much broader topic overall requiring repair for harms continually being done to Black people in several other areas. For people who want more information about reparations overall, they can visit https://www.ncobraonline.org/.
JR Valrey: What’s the teacher’s union’s position on the potential of forced vaccination of students and teachers, by the state government before re-opening up schools?
Taiwo Kujichagulia Seitu: The Oakland Education Association (OEA) does not endorse mandatory vaccinations for anyone. We believe vaccination is a choice and that vaccines should be made available to everyone who wants one (especially in zip codes with high infection rates), before returning to in person learning.
Even having received a vaccine, however, people are still able to contract and spread COVID-19. So OEA’s stance is that we stand by our safety criteria, which requires a near zero incidence of new cases for 14 consecutive days, a downward trajectory in documented cases, positivity rates and hospitalizations, and safe school environments with adequate PPE for all students and staff. We need this safety criteria to be met before schools re-open.
This is imperative since neither of the vaccines is recommended for children under the age of 16, meaning our children are still at risk. So we must remain vigilant in ensuring that we do everything within our power to minimize the spread of COVID-19.
JR Valrey: What are some of the structural reasons flatland schools aren’t opening?
Taiwo Kujichagulia Seitu: First we have to acknowledge the historic inequities in funding and access to resources in our flatland schools located in low income, primarily Black and brown, neighborhoods. Before the pandemic, our schools regularly went without basic necessities such as hand soap, paper towels, toilet paper, etc. In a pandemic, access to those necessities is even more essential. Additionally, the majority of our flatland schools have classrooms without adequate ventilation; i.e. rooms without windows or with windows that do not open. With an airborne virus, one of the best defenses is adequate ventilation. So in order for students and staff to be safe during in person learning, we have to ensure that air can circulate in every classroom, office, multipurpose room, gym, etc. across the district. The good news is that OUSD has received funding to remedy these problems. Air purifiers are being purchased and installed in schools / classrooms. However, it takes time.
JR Valrey: What does “the school’s are re-opening “actually mean in the OUSD?
Taiwo Kujichagulia Seitu: This means that schools are, and have been, open on a limited basis for those students struggling the most, with crisis distance learning. These include special education students, foster students, homeless students, comer students (students new to the country), and English language learners. Even for these students, the ones invited on campus have to have a demonstrable need. Their parents/guardians have to sign a waiver for their presence on campus. Additionally, these students are assisted by volunteers, who assist them in engaging with their teachers online.
Traditional in person learning, the way most people envision it, will not begin again until next school year. Even then, the schedule will be modified. It more than likely will not be a full day, 5 day a week schedule. We are still in a pandemic. Historically, pandemics usually last around 2 years. We are not yet at the point to safely go back to our “normal”.
JR Valrey: What does the teachers’ union think should be done about the students falling behind in this distance learning experiment?
Taiwo Kujichagulia Seitu: Everyone acknowledges that online learning does not work for everyone. Many students, across income levels all over the country, are disengaged, depressed and/or failing. So, plans are already being made to address this learning loss. This is more than an OUSD issue, in fact, the Alameda County Office of Education is putting programs in place county wide to make summer school accessible to more students in preparation for a successful 2021-2022 school year.
JR Valrey: How can parents stay up to date with what is going on, in the Oakland Unified School district?
Taiwo Kujichagulia Seitu: In the near future, joint statements from OEA and OUSD will be released. These statements will contain the most accurate, updated information. Parents can also get information from their school site union rep(s). Finally, the OEA welcomes working with parent organizers. So, if parents have the capacity, and are willing, to organize other parents, we will work with you. I am an OUSD graduate, parent and teacher and I am invested in my childrens’ success, just as other parents are invested in their childrens’ success.