Hours before Tracy Unified District's special board meeting, dozens gathered in the parking lot of the district's headquarters on the afternoon of Oct. 20 to protest the board's initial decision to bring students back to campus on Nov. 2.
The biggest message from the day was to urge the district to reverse their decision to reopen campuses in the interest of public safety, or to offer more options for students wishing to continue distance learning without them needing to disenroll from their current schools and enroll into the district’s independent study charter school.
With the options presented to them at the time — return to school for hybrid learning or enroll in independent study — students choosing to stay home for independent study would also be unenrolled from any special academic programs or extracurricular activities, including sports, advanced placement, International Baccalaureate, Agricultural Science, ROTC and the performing arts magnet.
"They're forcing students and parents to choose between mental development for special ed students or their physical health. They're forcing the Army and Navy kids to choose between their (ROTC) programs or their health. They're forcing students and parents to choose between collegiate futures and academic careers or their physical health," said Sujoy Shah, one of the protest organizers and Tracy High alumnus.
"These are decisions that no family and no household should have to make. And it's clear that these are choices the board never even thought of before they cast their votes (last) Tuesday."
The demonstration — organized by Shah and Kimball High alumnus, Megan Gee — included participants picketing outside TUSD's administration building while taking turns to speak on the issue of schools reopening. Organizers provided water, snacks, extra face masks, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes for fellow participants protesting in the nearly 90 degree weather and encouraged the practice of social distancing.
Those protesting were a mix of parents, students, alumni and other supporters who felt the need to speak up for those affected by the board’s decision and couldn’t speak for themselves, such as teachers and younger students, a rhetoric fueled more after the school board made its decision before reading any of its public comment during the meeting on Oct. 13
"It's kind of ironic, isn't it?" said one of the day’s first speakers, Mark Mariano, who recently graduated from Tracy High in June. "Tracy Unified School District wants to open up schools for children to be educated, but they refuse to listen to educators. They'll have kids in science class, but they refuse to listen to scientists."
Mariano addressed supporters of reopening schools for the sake of wanting their kids to socialize, have face-to-face instruction and return to normalcy.
"Well, I wanted a graduation. I wanted to go to prom. I wanted to know what it would be like to play the last semester of my spring sport. But sometimes things are bigger than yourself," he said. "This is about more than just you. It's about the faculty. It's about grandparents. It's about the people living in multi-generational households going home to their families, who they're scared of putting at risk. It's about the 220,000 people who have died in this country."
Shah led the crowd with call and response chants between speeches while cars drove by and honked their support on Lowell Avenue.
"You voted from home. You work from home. You meet from home," he said while the crowd would respond with shouts of the question "Why can't we?"
Signs in the crowd, made from a mix of media from poster boards to pizza boxes, included messages like “going to school shouldn’t be a death sentence,” “You can’t keep the bathrooms clean, yet you can keep it clean enough for COVID?” and “I can’t learn from a casket.”
Gee, whose sign read “My mom is not expendable,” felt some of the reasons behind the board’s decision were hypocritical.
In response to the district’s point about bringing students back to improve mental health, Gee responded, “Well, that’s the first time I’ve heard of that.”
From her own TUSD school experience, Gee alluded to long wait times to see counselors and focuses on mental health only being taken seriously if the school experienced some sort of tragedy.
“So to claim that it's a mental health reason as to why you want to open up the schools, that's just crazy to me,” she said.
The TUSD board of education voted unanimously later that evening to delay school reopenings until Jan. 4, being one of the view districts in the area following this plan. Most schools in the county plan to reopen on Nov. 2. District staff will also look into more distance learning options for its students in specialized programs.
An online petition opposing school reopenings also circulated during the week, reaching over 8500 signatures. It has since been closed with the words "Victory" and "This petition made change with 8,542 supporters!"
• Contact Brianna Guillory at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209-830-4229.