LAUSD strike closing schools catches parents by surprise

LAUSD strike closing schools catches parents by surprise

  • US News
  • March 18, 2023
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Like most parents in the nation’s second-largest school district, Marianne Webster was shocked to learn of the massive strike scheduled to close public schools across Los Angeles for three days next week.

She was even more shocked when she found out about it from her third year student.

“When I picked him up, he said, ‘The teachers are on strike,'” said the mother of four whose two oldest children attend 186th Street Elementary School in Gardena, where 70% of students take buses to campus and 100% have free lunch receive. “I said what?!'”

For the Los Angeles Unified School District’s bus drivers, cafeteria workers, teacher’s assistants and janitors, the three-day strike has been months in the making as they persist in demanding a 30% pay rise. But few outside of Service Employees International Union’s Local 99 took notice until United Teachers of Los Angeles announced late last week that its members would be taking them out.

Days later, most parents were just finding out.

“What do you mean they don’t go to school for three days?” 186th Street Elementary School mother Edith Castillo recalled how she was thinking as she watched the huge union rally in Grand Park on the news Wednesday night.

Huge crowds gather at a downtown park, many in red shirts.

United Teachers of Los Angeles and SEIU Local 99 members are holding a joint rally in Grand Park on Wednesday in a big show of solidarity.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

That question was apparently repeated thousands of times outside of hundreds of schools across Los Angeles this week when the parents were first hit by the news – and then exchanged speculation and rumours. Many said they felt caught off guard by the sudden closures. Many others struggled to believe it would actually happen.

“I don’t think they really will,” said Cajuan Banks, 42, as he picked up his two young children from Crescent Heights Elementary School in Picfair Village on Wednesday afternoon.

But others couldn’t take the risk. As the reality of Friday’s strike subsided, working parents raced for places in makeshift programs set up by the YMCA, the Boys and Girls Club and the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Department, or for shared care with friends and family.

Others struggled to rearrange their schedules and budgets to forego the wages they deserved.

“I have to stop working if they want to stay home,” said Crescent Heights mom Erika Aguilar, 35, who works at a Beverly Hills bakery. “Everything is so expensive at the moment, it will be very difficult.”

Hunger was also a priority. District spokeswoman Shannon Haber said administrators are trying to finalize plans for takeaway meals. But how that would happen without thousands of Local 99 food service workers was still being worked out when the dismissal bell rang on Friday afternoon.

In a district where most students eat breakfast and lunch at school and many take dinner home, parents went into the weekend wondering how they would feed their children for the week ahead.

Joshua Tamases, 54, a parent at El Sereno Elementary School, has followed the news of the school closure with fear and disbelief.

Earlier this month, the single father-of-two took a hit when his CalFresh benefits were cut by around $100 because some COVID-19 aid was not renewed. The prospect of feeding his kids breakfast and lunch for a few unexpected days means he has to tighten his belt.

“We will do more with less,” Tamases said Thursday at the release. “With the economy and inflation, everything seems to be getting harder and harder.”

But the frustration went far beyond food and childcare.

For many, the three-day strike was a bitter reminder of their children’s scholastic setbacks, falling behind both socially and academically following a protracted pandemic shutdown of campuses and a bumpy return to classrooms.

In the past year, half of all LAUSD students have been chronically absent. That year, a total of more than 150,000 California public school students were missing — far more than those who switched to private schools or homeschooling — while a “triple disease” of flu, COVID-19 and RSV sickened thousands of newly diagnosed and immunologically naïve young children for days at once.

Now principals were sending home 10 days of schoolwork for what parents had been told was a three-day break. The move is intended to give families flexibility, said the district spokeswoman. But some parents were alarmed. Three days might have been bearable. But an indefinite break less than a month into winter break and just a week before spring break began felt existential.

“I don’t know how to do this,” said Castillo, whose first grader is learning to read. “My main concern is that she’s lagging behind, especially in reading and writing,” say experts, skills children need to master by age 9 to avoid falling behind in other subjects.

El Sereno Elementary School mother Teresa Aguilar, 38, was similarly disappointed that a school district still plagued by learning setbacks from the pandemic would put itself in a position to give up “more valuable study time.”

“The kids haven’t recovered from the last break and now we’re sending them home,” she said. “It may only be three days, but that’s a lot.”

In reality, three days is a lot longer for some students than for others. A high school senior from a magnet school might not mind staying home to await the college admissions decision while a deaf toddler, supported by a specialized district program, languishes in isolation from his teachers, who are proficient in American Sign Language could.

But for the district’s newest parents, the pregnant teens and growing mothers who attend McAllister High School, a strike means they lose both their classes and childcare.

For these student-parents, “the clock is ticking,” said one teacher.

“The clock is ticking for you to finish school. The clock is ticking for you to learn English. The clock is ticking for you to figure out how to stand up for yourself and your child,” said teacher Tanya Reyes. “Now you are a student and a mother.”

For her students, Reyes said, every day outside of the classroom is a day closer to delivery or the day their babies grow from docile infants to sophisticated toddlers.

But she believes her school won’t be able to attract the bilingual workers she needs if Local 99 doesn’t get the raise the workers are striking for.

And despite the breaking news about school closures and widespread fear, many parents agree.

“I’m 100% on board,” said father Gio Rangel, 29, who works for UPS and is part of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. “If we don’t have a contract by August, we’ll go on strike ourselves.”

According to a recent poll conducted by Loyola-Marymount, nearly 80% of LA parents said they would support a teachers’ strike if labor negotiations collapse — although respondents Wednesday and Thursday estimated support for the impending strike at nearly 50% .

That would be in stark contrast to the six-day teachers’ strike in 2019, when tens of thousands of parents kept their children at home even though classrooms remained open — manned by the very workers spearheading Tuesday’s strike.

The difference, said Jessica Aguilera, 34, is that four years ago families had more time to prepare.

“This time around, a lot of parents don’t know,” the mother of three explained as she awaited discharge Thursday at 153rd Street Elementary School in Gardena. “I was handing out flyers and they were completely in the dark.”

With so little warning, many parents found their solidarity flimsy.

“I don’t really agree with the strike — three days is a long time — but these workers are doing double duty,” said Yazmin Hernandez, 32, a parent at 186th Street Elementary School, as she filled bags with crayons, scissors, pencils and glue take the students home. “The district is not giving them the benefits they should be receiving. You go above and beyond and get nothing in return.”

For them, understanding had an expiration date.

“We might last three days,” she said. “But more than three days, no.”

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