An Oakland educator and administrator have finally ended their weeks-long hunger strike. André San-Chez, a music teacher from Westlake Middle School, and Moses Omolade, the community schools manager, didn’t eat anything for 20 and 18 days, respectively, to protest the closure of schools across the city. They initially agreed to call off their hunger strike after Oakland Unified School District board members agreed to hold a special board meeting via Zoom on Feb. 18 to propose an amendment to the school closure plan. The amendment would have postponed the closures of Community Day School and Parker Elementary to next year and similarly postponed the changing of La Escuelita from a K-8 school to a K-5 school. But in spite of their agreement with San-Chez and Omolade to propose the amendment, the board voted to go ahead with the initial plans to close and reduce the three schools at the end of this school year. Omolade felt misled, and certain that the board never actually intended on voting to stop the closures.
Students, teachers, and community members were outraged and disappointed with the vote, and some students vowed to go on a hunger strike themselves. Both San-Chez and Omolade had to go to the hospital to physically prepare their bodies to end the strike. Omolade’s strike directly impacted his kidneys, and he is hoping he will be able to return to eating complete meals in two-to-three weeks.
“Physically, I’m feeling weak and like I’m rebuilding my strength,” Omolade said six days after ending the strike. “Emotionally, I’m feeling some sense of defeat even though I know this is not over. It’s a continued fight.”
San-Chez and Omolade were on the board meeting Zoom call. According to Omolade, once they realized the board had no intention of keeping their end of the agreement, San-Chez decided to continue their hunger strike until Feb. 20 because they were upset. Omolade had already made the decision to end the strike that day on Feb. 18.
“Internally, I turned off what had kept me going the whole time,” Omolade said. “I had already kind of shut it down.”
School board member Mike Hutchinson leaked the board’s plan for closures on a Jan. 25 public Facebook post for transparency, causing outrage from community members. Both San-Chez and Omolade began their hunger strikes Feb. 1 in an attempt to pressure the board to end closures.
“It is the same way that the board manipulates the community,” Omolade said. “If it wasn’t for Mike Hutchinson leaking that schools were closing, they wouldn’t have said anything until the meeting happened. That’s where they operate: being sneaky, being divisive, being manipulative. It was very transparent to the community that this was just a ploy to get us to end the hunger strike.”
In response to the onset of the hunger strike, the board voted on Jan. 31 to still close a majority of the 16 schools and to merge two of them but to postpone most of the closures until next school year. In an apparent concession to the striking members, they proposed an amendment Feb. 8 to not merge Westlake Middle School at all, but to still close Community Day School and Parker Elementary, and condense La Escuelita after June of this year. School closures are always a threat in Oakland and have happened before as a solution to what the district says is under-enrollment. According to district data, these closures will disproportionately affect Black students, who make up 22% of the district and 36% of the students affected by the closures.
“We’ve seen that with Kaiser Elementary [which closed in 2019] and many other schools when these schools close, we lose a lot of these students,” Omolade said.
Omolade says the closures will have extreme consequences on students, teachers, and their community.
“Children have to embody what they think the reason for the closure is, which is ‘we’ve done something wrong because there are low test scores, because we don’t have higher enrollment,’ and all these things that are not necessarily true become their truth,” Omolade said. “Whatever dreams they had of moving through particular institutions then get robbed.”
Students at Community Day School, which is the only school that enrolls expelled students in OUSD who are trying to clear their expulsion, will now have to attend a school for expulsion in Alameda County, which creates a 30-60-minute commute for caregivers.
“The message it sends is very harmful to children,” Omolade said. “These choices have lifelong impacts.”
According to Omolade, as a result of closures, many parents eventually leave the district and enroll their children in private or charter schools, contributing to the under-enrollment the OUSD board claims is at the root of the problem. The Oakland Education Association has filed an unfair labor practice charge against OUSD for planning to close the schools without bargaining with them first. A Public Employment Relations Board approved OEA’s request to expedite the OUSD’s need to respond to the charge, and they should have responded by Feb. 28. OEA did not confirm to Prism whether they responded by the requested date. According to Oakland-based reporter Zack Haber, both parties will reach an informal agreement or the charge will be seen by a judge.
“These things take education, take awareness, take time,” Omolade said. “I would love to see the community stand up and take whatever measures are necessary to keep the pressure on.”