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An Oakland special education teacher who also serves as the secretary of the Oakland Education Association added fire to the growing school reopening debate with a pointed Tweet criticizing parent concern that distance learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their children’s mental health.
Bethany Meyer tweeted on Feb. 17, “All the rich white parents suddenly concerned about mental health can take a seat. Most of them are causing their kids’ anxiety by pressuring them to complete asynchronous work and feeding into their sense of entitlement. Sorry/not sorry.”
Meyer later deleted her tweet and her Twitter account is now only accessible upon request.
Meyer didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story, but the Oakland teachers union released a response when asked by SFGATE to comment specifically on Meyer’s tweet.
“After a harrowing winter surge, it is encouraging that Alameda County is on the cusp of entering the red tier,” Keith Brown, the president of the Oakland Education Association, wrote in an email Monday. “I’m deeply appreciative of our healthcare workers and to everyone who followed shelter in place guidance. I also want to acknowledge the very real stresses felt by students, parents and teachers during this time. OEA has consistently fought to increase mental health support for our students, and will continue to do so. As we move forward, I am feeling hopeful that lower community spread, multi-tiered safety measures and vaccinations will continue to bring us closer to a safe return to in-person instruction. In order to get there together, everyone in our OUSD community will need to treat each other with respect and empathy as we move forward.”
Oakland Unified School District also released a statement regarding the email Monday night stating it was among several social media posts from staff and families that have “raised the temperature” on the discussion surrounding the opening of schools.
“In particular, we saw one Tweet from a staff member that left many families feeling disrespected and insulted,” a statement from the district read. “It has been shared numerous times by upset families. The staff member has since apologized for the Tweet, but we felt it necessary to make a few things clear.”
The statement went on to say that the district is unified, “particularly by our desire to provide the best possible education for all of our students.” It also asked everyone to refrain from “personal insults or attacks, as they do not help in this situation or any other, and only serve to inflame tensions.”
This statement came after many Oakland parents expressed frustration over Meyer’s comment. Parents also told SFGATE they have been discouraged by a lack of productive and supportive responses from the union regarding their children’s education during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When I saw her tweet I felt like I was punched in the gut,” said Eileen Carney, who has a kindergartner and fourth grader in the Oakland Unified School District. “This has been such a difficult time for my family. This hurts me on a deep and personal level frankly. We’re all at a breaking point right now and I think we need to be unified. These strange bullying tactics seem misplaced and frankly offensive.”
“I’m sad it has come to this from the angle of race and social class,” said Nikki Cowger, who has a third grader in special education and a fourth grader in the district. “What we should be focusing on is getting our kids back in school.”
Cowger said that in her efforts to get more traction around opening schools in Oakland for those families who want to return, she and her husband have been called a racist and rich white supremacists by union leaders and their allies.
In a Twitter post, she asked for Brown’s email address so she could send the union president a letter calling on schools to reopen. Shortly after, Cowger received an email from Meyer, who expressed her concern for her “friend” Brown following Cowger’s public call-out.
Cowger said in an email to SFGATE that several union allies simultaneously “proceeded with name-calling and negative comments” on Twitter and said she was being racist and not considering “the needs of brown/black families who ‘predominantly want to stay home’ as evidenced by the several months old OUSD survey that was sent out to all district parents.”
Autumn McDonald felt Meyer’s Tweet implies only white parents want their children back in school. More so, as a Black mom, she’s upset to hear Meyer—who is not Black—purporting to know what Black people are thinking.
“I think there are a lot Black people who will not know this has even happened,” said McDonald, who has a kindergartner and third grader in the district. “They won’t even know this voice is out there speaking for them. I, as a Black women, can’t say where Black people do or don’t want schools to reopen. But I do personally want my kids back in school. I need my kids to be back in school. My husband and I are working parents. The level to which our kids not being in school has caused stress for us and stress for them is beyond the pale. The other thing is that I believe in the science. I know a lot of parents of color who believe in the science. I wonder why there’s an assumption, ‘Oh gosh, all the Black people don’t want to do it.’ Black people have a lot of reason to be concerned with anything related to our trust in the health care system … that all said it doesn’t change the fact I still believe in the science.”
Caroline Myers, who has a first grader and a third grader in the district, was also disturbed by the tweet that she felt mocked children’s mental health and said she reached out to the superintendent, the district, the union, and Meyer about the tweet. She said she only heard back from Meyer, who Myers said, “did not appropriately address the issue I raised, but rather addressed an unrelated issue that I did not even bring up in my email.”
Separately, Myers reached out to a board member who she claims privately expressed concern over Meyer’s tweet, though she said he ultimately claimed Meyer has a “right to free speech.”
“If parents do approach the union and ask, ‘what efforts are being made to reopen,’ there’s not even a dialogue that ensues,” said Myers. “That critical dialogue is not happening.”
The controversy around schools isn’t unique to Oakland as many of the largest school districts in California and throughout the San Francisco Bay Area remain closed despite heightening political pressure to reopen.
Gov. Gavin Newsom launched the “Safe Schools for All” plan Jan. 14, streamlining the process for elementary schools to resume in-person instruction even if they are in the state’s most restricted purple tier. After the governor lifted the regional stay-at-home order last month, Alameda County was put in the purple tier, like most counties across the state.
As of Monday, the county had an adjusted care rate of 12.6 cases per 100,000 residents and a positivity rate of 3.6.%, according to the state dashboard. For the county to move into the red tier, it must report an average of four to seven daily cases per 100,000 residents and a test positivity of 5% to 8% for 14 consecutive days.
The push to open is also coming from federal level, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a recent study that there is little evidence of the virus spreading at schools when precautions are taken, such as masks, distancing and proper ventilation. The CDC has also said vaccinating teachers isn’t a prerequisite for the safe reopening of schools.
But many teachers have pushed back at returning without getting vaccinated first against the virus that has killed more than 450,000 Americans. In the Golden State, with 6 million public school students, the California Teachers Association has said it wants all educators vaccinated before returning to the classroom; many local unions have also adopted this sentiment.
Oakland Unified presented a plan to reopen schools with a goal of sending the youngest kids back Jan. 25 but halted the effort as the state’s third wave of coronavirus cases reached a new high in cases last month.
The effort has since been renewed as cases across the state plummet, and district spokesperson John Sasaki said that based on feedback from the CDC and local education officials, Oakland public schools will open “in one form of another this spring, in all probability it would start with (transitional kindergarten) to second grade and then eventually third to fifth grades.”
Oakland is one of the larger districts in the Bay Area with 36,000 students and 86 schools spread across 78 square miles. The student population is diverse, both racially and economically, and Sasaki said that how different families and teachers feel about reopening is in part dependent on where they live in the city.
“I would say if you live in a neighborhood that has higher rates of transmission you may be more concerned with what’s happening in the schools,” he said. “There are neighborhoods where there’s a lot of transmission going on. … I think in the areas where there’s less transmission it has people who want to get going and open school.
“Whether you’re in an area that has had a lot of transmission versus community without a lot … they’re going to have different feelings. One thing we won’t do is open a school in one neighborhood and not in another.”
Jessica Ramos, a senior at Skyline High School in Oakland and a student director on the Oakland Unified School District Board of Education, lives in East Oakland where the rates of COVID-19 are higher than zip codes in the hills.
(Editor’s note: SFGATE sent an email to every member of the Oakland Unified School District Board of Education for comment on this story and only one member responded with no comment. Ramos, who is the student director on the board, was the only person to give a statement.)
Ramos described her sentiment around schools reopening as “a little undecisive.”
“I’m from East Oakland and I know a lot of people who had COVID,” said Ramos. “My grandmother’s sibling just passed away from COVID. My cousin’s godfather just passed away. I know a lot of people living 8 to 12 people in the house. Adults are leaving the house for work every day. Kids are at home alone.”
Ramos tutors young kids and her mother is a preschool teacher and she said she has dealt with the frustrations young children age six and seven face with distance learning.
“I know for pre-K and kindergarten, they’re falling behind,” Ramos said. “I am more lenient with opening preschools and elementary schools and when it’s safe and when all the health requirements for the schools reopening are met.”
Ramos said she has both friends who want schools to reopen now and those who prefer to wait.
“It’s not just rich white parents,” she said. “I know there are other parents because they work up to 12 hours a day and they are leaving their students at home. I know there are students from low-income backgrounds who want their kids back in school because they don’t have the help for their students.”
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