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The LAUSD Strike Was Full Of Teachable Moments, Pandemic Flashbacks, And So Much Rain

A young girl in a blue shirt holds up a big purple flag that says Education Workers United on it, with a picture of a closed fist. The girl leans on a temporary metal fence.
A young girl holds an SEIU flag during a rally at L.A. Historic State Park.
(Ashley Balderrama
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UPDATE | March 24, 2023
  • L.A. Unified School District and SEIU have reached a tentative deal to increase salaries by 30% and provide health care to more members. The news Friday evening followed a three-day strike by members of the union that represents support staff, who were joined in solidarity by the district's teachers union. Read more »

"It’s a short period of time."

"It's just a few days."

As a three-day strike shut down Los Angeles Unified School District this week, parents who thought they’d slip back into late-pandemic mode say that’s not what happened.

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Instead, many found themselves parenting like it was spring 2020.

On Monday, film and TV developer Alison Haskovec hadn't been sure what to expect. “It's always a challenge, juggling everything,” she said. “And it does kind of bring me back to those pandemic days where they were doing remote learning, which I will be honest, was a bit of a disaster.”

Over the next three days, members of SEIU Local 99, which represents 30,000 LAUSD support staff, took to picket lines and held large rallies, joined by the district’s teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles. The unions, bargaining for new contracts, said the strike was about the district's lack of respect for the negotiations.

By Thursday, Haskovec and her three kids had muddled through the week, but … “not a lot of school learning happening these three days,” she said. Her children weren’t assigned work by their teachers, and some general assignments were lost in a blizzard of daily district emails.

“Apparently every day they could have been doing these more school-oriented, like, math and reading and all of that, but I only discovered it on day three, so that’s not that helpful,” she said. “I don’t think any of it is mandatory so I wouldn’t be shocked if a lot of kids are not doing it.”

That’s to say nothing of students with special needs, who told LAist this week that the instructional materials they did receive aren’t tailored to their children’s individualized education programs, and that the district-run child care sites — “only supervision,” in the district’s words — don’t cut it for their children’s needs.

SEIU Local 99 members overwhelmingly authorized a strike in mid-February. Asked by LAist about when the district started planning for a strike, a district spokesperson didn't identify a timeframe, saying planning for the strike "began well in advance of the actual strike." They also noted that principals, social media, and webinars communicated resources ahead of time.

An informal LAist survey of more than 100 parents found mixed levels of communication more generally. Many parents attended principal-led community meetings and felt well-informed by the district, social media and press, while dozens of others said they'd had no or only some information direct from their children's schools.

Parents pivot

Ahead of the strike, LAUSD announced two dozen district-sponsored sites across the city where families could pick up three days’ worth of meals on Tuesday, and 40 sites operated by other organizations.

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Even in heavy rain, more than 200 families picked up food at the Glassell Recreation Center. One teenager bust open a cereal bowl as soon as she got to the car. Efron Zepeda and his nieces Samantha, Camila, and Emily picked up cereal, fresh fruit, and milk. (And then dropped some of it.)

District pick-up sites only operated on Tuesday, so families that missed out turned to community groups.

Oasis Foursquare Church in Panorama City saw a spike in the number of people at their weekly food distribution on Thursday. The church is located across the street from Alta California Elementary school.

“We saw quite a few more families than normal, plus also a lot of kids that were here, so we were like, ‘why is there a lot of kids?’ and then I was like, ‘duh’ you know, there’s a strike,” said pastor Carlos Cota.

In Sherman Oaks, Meghan Gohil and his wife used the strike to teach their seventh-grade son how to examine social issues.

“We asked our son to read an article about the strike, and then to offer a commentary,” he said. “And what we said is, give us commentary, not just from one side, but give us — argue from both points of view.”

Their son noted that SEIU Local 99 workers don’t make a living wage.

Kids stay kids

In Westchester, Jennifer Buscher also sought a teachable moment with her daughter. She walked her first-grader through questions like: What is a “strike”? And what’s a “picket line”? The little one made a protest sign and the two went out in the bad weather to support school staff.

The Three-Day LAUSD Strike Provided Several Teachable Moments

I'll be real: she complained,” Buscher said. And the constant rain wore her daughter down. “She was tired. And she was immediately bored. And she spent most of the time, you know, wandering off to dig worms out of the ground. But then that led to conversations about worms!”

When they got home, Buscher had her daughter draw a diagram of the creatures she unearthed.

I like to see people in different communities come together and support each other, it’s nice.
— Kyana, 11-year-old

At the Sepulveda Recreation Center in North Hills, Nathan, a high school sophomore, spent the third morning of the strike walking his dog.

“School, well, without it, it’s been really boring,” he said. “I really hope to be back there soon.”

Other students weren’t in a rush to get back to school.

Gravity, a 10-year-old at Melrose Elementary School, joined his mother at a Thursday rally in L.A. State Historic Park. He spent the afternoon “rolling down hills.” Asked by LAist for his thoughts on the strike experience, Gravity’s mother prompted him with: “You want your teachers to get what they deserve.” He didn’t miss a beat: “I guess.”

Other students were a little more polished. Kyana, an 11-year-old at San Jose Elementary School, said she enjoyed some of the privileges that come from a school-free day, like sleeping in a little. She had fun rallying.

“I like to see people in different communities come together and support each other, it’s nice,” she said. “I really want the [TAs and the] teachers to get better pay.”

Does there need to be a 'next time'?

Leila Pirnia is a mental health therapist who works in LAUSD, although she’s employed separately. She has two children enrolled in the district.

“It's kind of sad that it has come to this point that we need to fight so hard for the money, but I think the bigger issue, that we're not really facing as a state, is that we're just underfunding education,” she said.

The state has historically lagged others in the amount of money "per pupil." According to the nonpartisan research center Public Policy Institute of California, while there has been a large infusion of cash into the state's K-12 fund over the most recent years, California ranks 35th in the country for education spending after adjusting for labor costs.

Pirnia pointed to the long toll of Prop 13, the 1978 measure that placed new limits on property taxes, draining school funding in the process. California voters have repeatedly rejected major rollbacks of Prop 13.

“So, you know, the teachers can get mad at the board and the board can push back and say, ‘we don't have any [money],’” Pirnia said. “But at the end of the day, there's just not enough money for education in the state.”

A crowd of people stand atop a foot bridge over a pathway at a park, many of them dressed in red or purple. A banner is stretched across the railing of the bridge that reads "Shame Carvalho."
Thousands gather outside the LAUSD headquarters in downtown Los Angeles in support of SEIU99 and UTLA on the first of a planned three-day strike in March 2023.
(Ashley Balderrama

That leaves LAUSD and its unions in sparring matches over other funds, like the district’s $4.9 billion reserve, while parents hope that deals can be reached. While this limited strike is over and SEIU Local 99 has a tentative new contract, LAUSD faces more bargaining in the near future.

Buscher, the Westchester mom, supports both unions. “We're in a climate where it seems like you have to do something as extreme as a strike in order to get the attention that you need to make change happen.”

Part of her support, she said, is because such change can be a boon elsewhere. Buscher volunteers in her young daughter’s classroom, two hours every Wednesday.

“I'm happy to do that and I enjoy doing that,” she said. “But me coming in once a week or once every other week, whenever my schedule allows, like, that's not the same as having an aide in their room all the time.”

LAist early childhood reporter Mariana Dale contributed to this story.

What questions do you have about Southern California?

Corrected April 3, 2023 at 9:15 AM PDT
A previous version of this article misstated who 10-year-old Gravity accompanied to a Thursday rally; it was his mother, not his grandmother.
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