Parents scramble, and voice support, as strike disrupts school in Los Angeles

People in rain coats hold signs and umbrellas while walking outside during a strike.
Los Angeles Unified School District workers and supporters picket outside Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools on March 21, 2023. (Mario Tama / Getty Images)

On day one of a labor strike that closed hundreds of Los Angeles-area public schools, Eric Calhoun polled the roughly 45 children in his care. How did they feel about having the day off? 

“We want to be in school,” the students told Calhoun, director of the Pan Pacific Park Recreation Center. Los Angeles Unified shuttered its campuses for more than a year at the height of COVID, and the students didn’t want to go back to virtual learning or be apart from their classmates. 

This time around, school closures are expected to last just three days, as the union representing school bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria staff, classroom aides, and others, demands higher wages for its 30,000 members, some of whom are among the district’s lowest-paid staffers. Los Angeles public school teachers joined the walkout in a show of solidarity. 

As the strike began, the complicated logistics of child care and food distribution underway across Los Angeles County underscored the crucial role schools play in keeping a community running. Parents who spoke with Chalkbeat voiced support for the education workers who keep schools clean and students fed, but they acknowledged the challenges of closing the nation’s second-largest school system.

During a labor strike that closed schools, LA Unified students participate in activities at Pan Pacific Park Recreation Center on March 21, 2023. (Gabrielle Birkner/Chalkbeat)

Will Lee, who lives in View Park, said child care was top of mind when he received a robocall over the weekend letting him know that a strike was imminent. “We knew we needed to figure it out because we wanted to support the teachers and others who work at the school,” said Lee. He took the day off from his job at a car dealership to care for his daughter, Zippora, 7, and help her with the schoolwork-turned-homework that her teacher had assigned.

For those families who couldn’t wrangle last-minute child care, some campuses offered supervision, and city agencies stepped up. On the eve of the walkout, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass announced that 30 recreation centers would have free child care for children in first through fifth grade, and many of those locations would have grab-and-go meals. (The Los Angeles mayor does not control LA Unified, which serves the City of Los Angeles and dozens of smaller municipalities nearby. Bass is not a party to the labor negotiations between Local 99 and district leaders, including Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.) 

On Tuesday morning, cars lined up at Pan Pacific Park, where recreation center staff stood in the pouring rain, handing out more than 500 meal packages with enough food for three days. 

Carol Alvarado, a senior at Hollywood High School, said she supports raises for the education workers seeking them — pointing out their contributions on campus. “Security aides make school a more friendly environment. Cafeteria workers provide lunch to students who have it,” said Alvarado, 17, noting that most students at her school rely on cafeteria food at least once a day, and some of them get breakfast, lunch, and dinner there.

Alvarado worked as a counselor Tuesday at the Pan Pacific Park Recreation Center. The free “Strike Camp,” with its sports, games, and arts and crafts, will run from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. while schools remain closed.

Pan Pacific Park Recreation Center held a “Strike Camp,” beginning March 21, 2023, as education workers walked off the job. (Gabrielle Birkner/Chalkbeat)

For more than a year during the pandemic, the center served as a temporary homeless shelter — its sports facilities transformed into makeshift dormitories. “We went out of our way to host them during COVID, and now we need to go out of our way to help our families,” said Floyd Thweatt, a coordinator there. “Our parents go to work, and they need a safe place for their kids to be, so they are not just at home, on the couch, watching TV.” 

This week’s walkout comes about four years after the union representing Los Angeles Unified teachers, nurses, counselors, and mental health professionals spent six school days on the picket line — demanding higher wages, smaller class sizes, and campuses staffed with nurses and librarians.

LA Unified, which enrolls about 420,000 K-12 students at more than 750 schools, is scheduled to reopen its campuses on Friday.

For now, many parents are relying on the rec centers for support. At the Poinsettia Recreation Center in Hollywood, about three dozen elementary school children raced around the gym, which served as another pop-up child care location. 

Picking up her 6-year-old son for the day, Tina Ger said she supported the striking staffers. A native of Berlin, Germany, she noted that labor strikes, more common in Europe than in America, can move the needle for workers. “If it would be a full month off, we’d still support them,” she said of the education workers of Local 99. “It’s really not a good way of treating people so important to education.”

Gabrielle Birkner is Chalkbeat’s features editor and fellowship director.

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