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OUSD is No Longer Publishing its COVID Data

Teachers, students and the Oakland Education Association had been vocal about COVID safety issues during the last two school years. Last January, OUSD teachers protested, as did students, in independent non-union affiliated sick-out and/or walk-out actions calling for better COVID safety measures. OEA pressed the district and negotiated over safety issues, and eventually struck a safety agreement deal that included making high quality masks available for free at all schools. This year, though, there have not been COVID protests. None of the four newsletters OEA has released this year have the word COVID in them, and its website no longer has any navigable page for COVID resources.

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“The data dashboard provided imperfect but vital information to understand where things were at,” Dorothy Graham said. “You could see the spikes in cases and know how urgent it was to test.”

By Zack Haber

The Oakland Unified School District is no longer publishing data this school year to inform students, staff, parents and the public about positive COVID cases in schools.

“The district is responding to all positive cases of which we are notified,” wrote OUSD spokesperson John Sasaki in an email to the Post News Group. “However, consistent with state and county guidance, we are no longer aggregating and cleaning the data in the same way we were last year.”

During last school year, OUSD, along with neighboring school districts, published regularly updated dashboards that informed the public about positive COVID cases both district wide and in individual schools. While OUSD has retired its COVID dashboard, the Alameda, Berkeley, Emeryville, and San Leandro Unified School Districts are continuing to update theirs.

In an email, Berkeley Unified School District spokesperson Trish McDermott wrote that her district continues to “share our case count information with our community on our dashboard to inform their own choices about masking and testing.”

Spokesperson Keziah Moss wrote that the San Leandro School District has “continually operated with full transparency with our staff and families.” Moss called the publicly accessible COVID data “helpful to everyone as we monitor health and wellness in our schools.”

In an interview with the Post News Group, OUSD parent Innosanto Nagara expressed frustration about the dashboard’s removal, and also cast doubt on the adequacy of OUSD’s process of testing and collecting COVID data.

“Without the dashboard I have no idea how many students have COVID,” said Nagara. “But it’s not just the dashboard that’s gone. Basically, the whole system of monitoring, testing, and reporting is gone too.”

According to Nagara, last school year his son was tested for COVID twice a week at the school he attends, Melrose Leadership Academy, but that practice has ended.

“Before this school year started our school sent out an email saying you could come pick up a test,” said Nagara. “And that was all I’ve heard about testing.”

According to Sasaki, OUSD’s decision to retire its dashboard is “in alignment with” a resolution the school board passed on June 22. The resolution no longer requires the district to publish its COVID data and ended bi-weekly testing at all schools. While the district is still required to distribute take-home tests to students and host staffed testing hubs, there are no requirements as to how many tests must be distributed or how many hubs must remain open. Sasaki says rapid tests are available to all students who are symptomatic or exposed. This month, OUSD has two to four testing hubs for PCR testing open during weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., which is roughly the same hours that schools are open.

Board Director Mike Hutchinson, who introduced the resolution, told this reporter in a message that the resolution’s intent was “resetting the district’s response to COVID this year, so we are in alignment with the state and the CDC and still have flexibility to shift if needed.”

“Thankfully we don’t need the same level of testing or reporting that we did last year,” wrote Hutchinson. “It’s good news that we’ve been able to scale back and shift our response to COVID.”

All elected directors currently serving on the school board voted to approve Hutchinson’s resolution. Director Kyra Mungia, who was appointed to the board, had not yet taken on her position when the vote was held.

In an email to this reporter, Board Director Sam Davis wrote that while he had been “an advocate of more available [COVID] data” during last school year, he “didn’t see any reason to push back against” Hutchinson’s resolution for this year. Davis called the gathering and reporting of COVID data as “a big lift,” and wrote that “it does not seem like schools should be under the burden of doing that work when it is not being done for any of the places where people are gathering in large numbers, usually unmasked, such as bars, concerts and restaurants, in ways that are probably contributing a lot more to community transmission than schools are.”

Board Directors Aimee Eng, Clifford Thompson, and VanCedric Williams, did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. Director Gary Yee did not answer when asked why he voted to approve Hutchinson’s resolution but wrote in an email he thought that Superintendent Dr Kyla Johnson-Trammell’s implementation of the resolution was consistent with its intent.

During public comments of a school board meeting on Aug. 24, Dorothy Graham criticized OUSD for no longer publishing COVID data.

“How are families supposed to understand the spread of COVID in our schools and the risk to our students with no data?” she asked.

Graham is a former director of the Alameda Health Consortium and has over 40 years experience working in public health. She’s also a high COVID risk individual with a grandson who attends an OUSD school. In an interview, Graham said she felt that OUSD is shifting its response from collective to individual responsibility. Like other districts in the area and across the country, masks are now optional at OUSD. Grahams is critical of the district’s choice to no longer release COVID data while the end of required masking could put more people at risk and feels it’s especially important now that people have access to COVID data so they can make informed risk assessment choices.

“The data dashboard provided imperfect but vital information to understand where things were at,” Graham said. “You could see the spikes in cases and know how urgent it was to test.”

As the OUSD school year started in early August, the CDC was saying COVID transmission was high throughout the Bay Area. It is unclear how widespread COVID is now and if it is less of a risk this school year. Vaccinations provide protection for many people against the worst COVID symptoms, but their potency wanes as time passes and over 25% of students and 45% of Black students are not vaccinated.

It is also unclear how widespread COVID is currently in Alameda county. Since last spring, private and state health institutes and departments have been saying that COVID case rates have likely become increasingly undercounted as take-home COVID tests are more available while government testing is less available. The increased ability to test independently has caused people to report their cases to health departments less frequently. The county’s data dashboards currently show that rates of reported COVID cases over the last four months have sharply fallen. They also show COVID related hospitalizations and inpatient rates have sharply risen for about the last six months. The county is currently administering tests at about the same rate as they were at the start of the pandemic.

Graham feels not many people are speaking out about OUSD related COVID issues.

“I was the only person to mention the word COVID at the board meeting,” she said. “Voices you’d expect to be speaking out about this, aren’t.”

Teachers, students and the Oakland Education Association had been vocal about COVID safety issues during the last two school years. Last January, OUSD teachers protested, as did students, in independent non-union affiliated sick-out and/or walk-out actions calling for better COVID safety measures. OEA pressed the district and negotiated over safety issues, and eventually struck a safety agreement deal that included making high quality masks available for free at all schools. This year, though, there have not been COVID protests. None of the four newsletters OEA has released this year have the word COVID in them, and its website no longer has any navigable page for COVID resources.

In a statement emailed to this reporter, OEA President Keith Brown wrote that “We can’t let our guard down against COVID.” Brown pointed out that agreements made with the district last school year have continued into this year. These include providing classrooms with quality air filtration, providing substitute teachers in classrooms, and ensuring that “OUSD maintains a stockpile of high-quality masks and rapid tests.”

According to Brown, OEA has also been encouraging more transparency in relation to COVID data this year.

“Our safety agreement sets the minimum, and we will continue to encourage OUSD to go above and beyond,” Brown wrote, “including transparently reporting known cases.”

In the meantime, OUSD parent Innosanto Nagara and grandparent Dorothy Graham remain unsatisfied with the district’s COVID procedures and want more transparency.

“I feel like we sent kids in this year like COVID was over from the district’s concern,” said Nagara.

“I think they retired the dashboard very prematurely.” said Graham. “Why is this controversial? Releasing the data should just be common sense.”

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Activism

Grocery Inflation Causes Food Banks to be the Default for Families in Oakland

Steve Morris, Director of Natural Resources and Environment at GAO, explained that while the pandemic certainly had an effect on food increases, there is not one single factor for a rise in food prices. He said events like the Ukraine-Russian war, the avian influenza epidemic that raised the price of eggs, and climate change are also key factors.

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Photo: iStock image.
Photo: iStock image.

By Magaly Muñoz

During the past three years, the US has seen the largest increase in food prices since the 1980s. In response to this crisis, community food banks have emerged to provide much-needed assistance to families in need.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that national food prices have increased 11% from 2021 to 2022, when the average yearly increase was previously 2%. The San Francisco Bay Area saw a 12% increase from 2021 to 2022.

Steve Morris, Director of Natural Resources and Environment at GAO, explained that while the pandemic certainly had an effect on food increases, there is not one single factor for a rise in food prices. He said events like the Ukraine-Russian war, the avian influenza epidemic that raised the price of eggs, and climate change are also key factors.

While still maintaining that elevated prices will persist for the foreseeable future, Morris anticipates a decrease of 8% in food price increases.

He also stated that while the average person may spend 10% of their income on groceries, a low-income family may spend 30%, making the inflation in food prices that much harsher.

“Higher food prices can put people in a position where they have to make some tough choices between ‘can they go to the grocery store and buy food’ or ‘do they have to spend it on other necessities like home or health care or other things,’” Morris said.

Michael Altfest is the Director of Community Engagement and Marketing for Alameda County (AC) Food Bank, the primary food distributor in the county with over 400 community partners that receive frequent donations.

Altfest shared that from 2019 to 2023, the number of pounds of food distributed to their community partners has doubled. In 2019, the food bank distributed 32.5 million pounds of food, while in 2021 during the height of the pandemic, they distributed 58.1 million pounds. This year they are on pace to distribute almost 60 million pounds of food.

“If we’re on pace this year to provide more than we did in the pandemic, I think that says a lot about what the state of hunger is right now,” Altfest said.

During the height of the pandemic, state and federal government relief programs helped families offset significant expenses like groceries. These programs included the child tax credit increase that put anywhere from $2,000 up to $3,600 back into qualifying families pockets when filing their yearly taxes.

Another program that directly targeted food insecurity, was the increase in funds for SNAP or CalFresh. These government programs provide food-purchasing assistance for low- and no-income people to help them maintain adequate nutrition and health. But earlier this spring, funding was cut from the state program CalFresh and families saw at least a $95 decrease in their assistance.

“Every single person talks about the cost of living in Alameda County, every single person. The cost of rent, the cost of food, those are things that come up every single time without fail,” Altfest shared.

One of AC Food Bank’s community partners is Homies Empowerment, a non-profit in Oakland that was established as a means to support youth and the community through a positive lens.

Selena Duarte, the FREEdom Store Coordinator, said the organization’s initiative to help families with food provision began in May of 2020 when their original store was filled only with books and students told them that while it was nice to have things to read, “they can’t eat books,” showing the team at Homies Empowerment that there were bigger needs in the community that they had to address.

Since then, the organization has expanded its services. They now provide groceries every Tuesday, have established the FREEdom Farm where they grow produce that gets distributed in their make-shift store, offer hot breakfast to 40 students and their families five days a week, and much more.

Duarte said that they serve almost 400 families a week and they are continuing to expand their food services due to the increasing number of people coming to them seeking help to reduce their spending on groceries. She recognized that although people say that the “pandemic is over”, she knows that the stress that families are experiencing is still very real.

“The next phase is really becoming a sustainable community food hub, where literally we can grow, share, cook, and store our food here in the community and for the community,” Duarte said.

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Bay Area

PG&E Increases Rates While Bay Area Households Are Struggling to Stay Afloat

Prior to the pandemic, less than 2% of callers were asking for utility assistance, but in the last year that percentage has grown to 8.2%, according to Eden I&R data. Oakland made up 40% of the calls to 211, with Black and Latino individuals and single parents making up the majority of the callers. Female callers made up over double that of male callers and most ranged from 25 to 64 years old.

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PG&E is increasing utility rates for Californians causing the cost of living to rise as millions of residents struggle to pay their bills. Photo: iStock image.
PG&E is increasing utility rates for Californians causing the cost of living to rise as millions of residents struggle to pay their bills. Photo: iStock image.

By Magaly Muñoz

The cost of living is growing as millions of California customers will soon start to see the effects of PG&E raising their rates after a case ruling that will hike up monthly utility bills and ultimately raise the cost of living for struggling residents.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) agreed in November to a request by the electric company for $13.5 billion for wildfire system enhancement and undergrounding, vegetation management, and capacity upgrades.

Starting Jan. 1, residents will see a nearly $33 increase in their upcoming electric and natural gas bill.

Mark Toney, Executive Director of The Utility Reform Network (TURN), an advocacy group, said that low-income families would be most affected by the change.

“I like to say we want the most green for the least green, and the cost of ‘greening the grid’ should not be cutting off low-income families of color from the grid because the monthly bills are too doggone high,” Toney said.

Toney said he was worried that if the cost of utilities continues to increase, some families would be unable to make their payments and would therefore, lose power.

If families choose cost-saving alternatives like using candles, the potential for a fire rises if families with small children accidentally knock something over and don’t put it out in time. People also rely on medical devices for health-related reasons to be hooked up for long periods of time, which could contribute to high costs in electricity bills.

Some Bay Area residents are already struggling to pay their utility bills.

Longtime Oakland resident, Rev. Dr. Barbara Jim-George has found herself using odd, potentially dangerous, alternatives to using her central heat, such as leaving open a hot oven to warm her living room because her apartment is “like a walk-in freezer.”

The CDC has warned against using this method to heat up your home as it can disperse dangerous pollutants and gasses, like carbon monoxide, and worsen already existing lung diseases.

“I can leave something sitting out on my table at night and it’s just fine as it would be in the refrigerator,” Jim-George said.

She had retired from her job in 2014 and was living on a tight budget for a few years until she found herself back at work in 2018 because her social security checks weren’t enough to pay bills.

As the cold and rainy weeks persist, the reverend anticipates a higher utility bill in the mail soon.

Jim-George shared that she had a cousin who lost their home in the Camp Fire of 2018, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history, and blamed PG&E for not learning from these tragedies to do what was best for customers.

“They [PG&E] should have buried lines long ago because we’re eating the cost for [their mistakes]. I think it’s negligent on their side to not have had the foresight to understand the issues beforehand,” Jim-George said.

While the reverend is one of many who will have to resort to budgets and taking on second jobs in order to keep up with high housing bills, organizations across the area have seen a large intake of housing and emergency needs for decades, increasing with the effects of the pandemic in the last four years.

The need for utility assistance has grown exponentially, with four times the amount of calls coming in about families who have been without energy or are months behind in bills and are at risk of losing power in their homes.

“Housing [and related needs] remains our top concern for callers calling 211,” Allison DeJung said.

DeJung is the Executive Director of Eden I&R, which operates the calls and messages from 211 Bay Area- a multilingual 24/7 information hotline that connects callers with resources in Alameda County.

She said that in the last fiscal year, her team received over 69,000 calls and they made about 113,000 referrals to programs and organizations in the county for issues related to housing, utilities, food assistance and more.

Prior to the pandemic, less than 2% of callers were asking for utility assistance, but in the last year that percentage has grown to 8.2%, according to Eden I&R data. Oakland made up 40% of the calls to 211, with Black and Latino individuals and single parents making up the majority of the callers. Female callers made up over double that of male callers and most ranged from 25 to 64 years old.

DeJung said most callers looking for help paying their utility services were connected to Spectrum Community Services.

Spectrum is a nonprofit organization that has financially assisted low-income families and individuals through utility, water, and food aid since 1971.

Last year they received nearly 10,000 applications for their Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which helps households pay overdue energy bills. The organization was only able to help 5,000 of those applicants.

Black households, similar to data from Eden I&R, were the majority of applicants for utility assistance at Spectrum, along with the majority of assistance coming from Oakland residents.

Lara Calvert, Executive Director of Spectrum Community Services, said the lack of funding is the primary reason they have to turn away applicants.

Assistance can be granted once every 12 months, with a cap of $3000 in overdue bills. Calvert said the large cap is what also contributes to helping less people every year because if multiple people apply for large quantities of assistance, funding runs out quicker.

Spectrum prioritizes households that have people who are over 60, anybody who’s disabled in the home, people who have children five years or younger, as well as people with a higher overall energy burden for their home.

A high energy burden is when a family’s energy or utility bills take up the majority of a household’s monthly income, making it difficult to maintain a sustainable quality of life.

Calvert shared that although the beginning of the pandemic brought more attention to the organization, 2023 was the largest year for residents asking for assistance from the program and it doesn’t look like it’s going to slow down soon.

“We are anticipating continuing to have a large number of people seeking assistance this year that will far outstrip our amount of money that we have to give out,” Calvert said.

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Activism

Oakland Post: Week of July 10 – 16, 2024

The printed Weekly Edition of the Oakland Post: Week of July 10 – 16, 2024

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