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“Our literal lives are at stake!”: Students, teachers and parents back striking students in Oakland, California

“Our literal lives are at stake!”: Students, teachers and parents back striking students in Oakland, California

More than 1,200 students in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) in Northern California, are engaged in an indefinite strike against unsafe in-person learning amid the present Omicron surge. Striking Oakland students are joining a growing wave of opposition among students and teachers across the US and internationally to a policy of mass infection.

The World Socialist Web Site spoke with teachers and students in the district and throughout the West Coast region who expressed their support for the Oakland students.

“I’m out here today to stand with students and teachers because right now it’s not safe,” explained José, a sixth grade math and science teacher at United for Success Academy (UFSA) in Oakland who was striking in sympathy with students on Tuesday. Of roughly one dozen teachers at UFSA, five were quarantining yesterday due to suspected or confirmed COVID-19 exposure or infection. All non-quarantining teachers participated in the strike and the picket line, alongside several additional staff.

Noting the rampant spread of COVID-19 and the preventive measures taken by parents to keep their children safe, José continued, “Only about a third of the students in some of my classes have been in this week. That makes it really hard to teach and hard to learn.”

Teachers protest for stronger COVID-19 safety protocols outside Oakland Unified School District headquarters on Jan. 7, 2022, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

José continued, “It’s not sustainable. For the first week, we didn’t even do any academic work. It was all like, ‘How are you feeling? How are you doing? What would you like to see things looking like moving forward, to feel good and nourished?’

“It sometimes feels like we’re almost subbing. We can’t really dive into the lessons that we’re supposed to be diving into because there aren’t enough students.

“There is a small percentage of students trying to do online, but it’s been very difficult, and it’s hard for everyone to access.”

José highlighted students’ central need for a safe environment as an essential part of the learning process. “Once you feel supported, the rest comes into place. If you don’t have that, it’s almost impossible to get to that level.”

He agreed with the World Socialist Web Site’s call for an elimination strategy, to end community transmission of COVID-19. “Yeah, I think anybody considering a holistic approach would agree with that. We should definitely come together and figure out how to do that.”

According to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, there has been an ongoing surge of cases since schools reopened from winter break. Over 1,700 cases among students and 260 cases among staff have been reported since January 3. Due to the lack of testing and contact tracing in OUSD as well as loosened COVID-19 safety guidelines for quarantining and isolation of infected staff and students, these numbers are undoubtedly far higher.

“Into school, it's the safest place for kids”

The surge taking place in the Oakland public schools mirrors the mass infection taking place among children across the country as schools have been forced to open in recent weeks. According to the latest report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), nearly 1 million US children were infected with COVID-19 just last week.

Jazmine, a teacher at UFSA who struck Tuesday in support of the Oakland students, spoke of the level of infection at her school site. “A lot of my students are not in class now because they are either sick with COVID, their parents are sick with COVID, or they are scared to go in-person.”

When asked her thoughts on the mental health impact on children and efforts by the Democrats and unions to keep students in school even if they get COVID-19, Jazmine said, “Kids are already experiencing mental health problems right here on the ground, when they see half of their peers out of class. It’s like an apocalyptic experience looking around and being like, ‘Where are all my peers?’ and ‘Am I going to get sick next?’”

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The district has continued to implement policies that will result in further infections in schools and community spread. On Tuesday, OUSD announced that it will enforce recently updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) testing, quarantine and isolation protocols for students and staff in K-12 schools.

According to the district, vaccinated children may remain on campus if exposed to COVID-19, unvaccinated children who have been exposed may return to campus after only five days quarantine and a negative rapid test, and at-home tests will be allowed to clear students early from isolation and quarantine. Additionally, for students below fifth grade, the district will implement a test-to-stay program, which knowingly allows unvaccinated students who have been exposed to stay on campus for a “modified quarantine.”

These guidelines, fully endorsed by the Biden administration, follow an open policy of mass infection and are designed to keep schools open, regardless of infection or exposure.

Timothy, a high school student from the East Bay, opposed the policies being used to keep open the schools and sent his support to striking Oakland students. “Schools across the country are opening amidst the government’s disastrous decision to abandon all pandemic protections. Millions have been diagnosed in the past few days. Amidst these atrocious circumstances, it is incredibly inspiring to see grassroots protests of students standing in solidarity with their teachers in defiance of the capitalist agenda.”

Doug, a retired truck driver in the Seattle area, said, “There is no excuse for the germ warfare being waged on the working class by the financial elites. Thank you, Oakland students, for taking a stand and showing us the way out of this horrible pandemic.”

Alison, a parent of a Los Angeles Unified student, tweeted a statement of support Wednesday, urging students elsewhere to take up a fight as well. “As a parent of young children, I fully support these Oakland students’ opposition to unsafe schools and unscientific policies of mass infection across the US. Getting Long COVID is not inevitable. I encourage kids locally at Los Angeles Unified School District to do the same.”

Chris, a worker in Napa County, said, “I wholeheartedly support the actions and intentions of the students of the Oakland Unified Student Strike. These students represent the best and most sensible among us and are giving this crisis the urgency it deserves. I not only support them and their actions but call upon those with authority to enact the necessary measures to ensure the public safety to do so. Our literal lives are at stake!”

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“They are focused on keeping students in school no matter how dangerous it is”: Students in Chicago speak on struggle for remote learning to save lives

This week schools throughout Chicago are in disarray as they have opened for in-person instruction amid the continuing surge of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officially reopened last Wednesday after the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) rammed through an agreement with Mayor Lori Lightfoot that contained no real improvements to safety and ignored teachers’ main demand for remote learning until cases are brought under control.

The World Socialist Web Site recently spoke with two students—one enrolled at Northwestern University (NU) and the other an 8th grader in CPS—as well as a parent with children in the school district on conditions in schools and how the pandemic has impacted them.

Corbin, the Northwestern student, participated in a walkout this week by students at the university who are refusing to attend in-person classes while the school is reporting record numbers of positive cases.

“We’re walking out from in-person classes until the university provides virtual classes as an option to all students and takes seriously the health and well-being on immunocompromised and vulnerable students,” Corbin said.

“The last two weeks have seen our highest campus COVID numbers yet, and last week university admin announced that we will be returning to in-person classes this week. Students and other community members started a petition demanding virtual classes and KN95 masks—that the school recommended but did not provide—be provided to anyone expected to be on campus, students, staff and faculty. The petition reached 1,500-plus signatures and has been sent by many to NU admin with no acknowledgement or response.”

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Maryland students and teachers oppose school reopenings as state officials seek to force in-person classes at all costs

Amid a surge of infection driven by the Omicron variant of COVID-19, Maryland’s Republican Governor Larry Hogan and the Democratic Party-controlled state government are resorting to ever more manipulative measures to keep businesses and schools operating in-person.

The surge had caused Baltimore City Public Schools to close 60 of its 155 schools at the beginning of the year, but by the end of the week the district had quickly reopened them. Outbreaks in Baltimore City schools have been covered up by the school board, leading to deaths. “We are being forced into school environments that are unsafe—due to overcrowding, limited access to testing, lack of school nurses, lack of proper masking—and are being gaslighted by leadership with promises of safety,” a Baltimore City schoolteacher told the World Socialist Web Site.

“Educators are at a breaking point and cannot keep this ‘normal school year’ pace in an environment that is anything but normal. We are more than capable of delivering high-quality instruction virtually,” she insisted.

petition started by high school students on Change.org calling for remote learning has garnered 18,200 signatures in a little over a week. “A month ago, [Montgomery County Public Schools] announced that if a school reached a student infection rate of 5 percent, the school would be reviewed by MCPS and the Department of Health and Human Services to go virtual for two weeks,” it reads.

“One day after winter break, 11 schools were above the 5% rate, and two days later, 126 schools were.” The petition charges county officials with jeopardizing students’ safety, saying, “Not expecting this extreme upsurge, the county is scrambling now, trying to force us to stay in school, even though they know it is unsafe.” A similar petition in neighboring Howard County has gotten 15,000 signatures.

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Toronto caretaker speaks out against school reopenings: “Schools are not safe for in-person learning as long as COVID is not eliminated”

Ontario schools resumed in-class learning this week in spite of record levels of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations in Canada’s most populous province. Premier Doug Ford and his hard-right Progressive Conservative government have pressed for the reopening of schools under regulations that virtually guarantee Omicron will run rampant among school staff and students, as have provincial governments from coast-to-coast.

Teachers at Westmount High School in Montreal demonstrated against the Quebec government's reckless decision to reopen schools in the midst of the pandemic's second wave (Photo: Robert Green)

Opposition among education workers and students to this reckless policy is growing. On Monday, students in Winnipeg and other parts of Manitoba walked out of school to protest unsafe conditions. On Wednesday, several teachers in Ontario’s Peel Region launched work refusals over concerns about dangerous working conditions. In a letter to the World Socialist Web Site, Sterling, a Toronto school caretaker, denounced the precipitous reopening of schools and called for a mass, worker-led movement to fight for the implementation of a Zero COVID policy.

Let’s begin by debunking a major lie emanating from the politicians, unethical public health officials and their lackeys in the corporate press. The lie is that “Schools are safe.” Fact: COVID is an airborne pathogen transmitted through aerosols, which are small particles that float in the air like cigarette smoke. These aerosol particles can stay in the air for hours and move around easily in poorly ventilated indoor spaces, like school buildings. Thus, the conclusion from this scientific fact is clear: schools are not safe for in-person learning as long as COVID is not eliminated.

As a caretaker for a school board in Toronto, I do not feel safe going to work knowing I am forced to be exposed to COVID everyday. The reason is clear: the criminal capitalist ruling elite and their political representatives want kids in school to allow their parents to be exploited at work to generate profits for the Bay Street sociopaths.

In the evenings when students and teachers have gone home, I know COVID is still in the air because schools are not adequately ventilated, despite the HEPA filters. I wear a KN95 mask during my shifts—from a box I bought myself. The KN95 masks are better than no mask but they are still inadequate protection from COVID aerosols. The school board refuses to provide adequate masks such as the N95, which offer the best protection from inhaling COVID aerosol particles.

The school board is ordering caretakers to do more disinfection of surfaces in schools, which is a complete waste of time because COVID is transmitted through the air. Over the winter break, caretakers did the extra cleaning that normally we don’t have time to do, such as cleaning walls, windows, and general maintenance.

During the first two weeks after the Christmas break, caretakers were still forced to go to work in a clean, empty school essentially to baby sit the building. Supply caretakers were kept home without pay.

Our feckless union—CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees)—refuses to fight for the health and safety of its 700,000-plus membership, while it continues to steal workers’ money via union dues. CUPE has left us to fend for ourselves. The school boards, the unions and the government—the troika of mass infection and death—have left us education workers no choice but to organize into rank-and-file committees in every school independently and in opposition to the troika. By organizing and joining the committees, education workers will be in a powerful position to force school closures and a shift to online learning as part of a broader Zero COVID strategy until COVID is eliminated. The independent rank-and-file school committees should also join the Cross Canada Educators Rank-and-File Safety Committee (CERSC), whose mission is to connect the struggle of education workers across Canada and internationally against the criminal policies of the capitalist elite. By appealing to our colleagues across Canada and around the world, we will be able to impose rational, science-based policies through a Zero COVID strategy to protect the lives of children, school staff and members of our communities from preventable disease and death.

All power to the workers,

Sterling

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Students in Austria strike against government’s herd immunity policies

In more than 100 schools across the country, pupils went on strike Tuesday against the homicidal herd immunity policies of the conservative Austrian Peoples Party (ÖVP) and Green Party coalition government. In view of the rapid spread of the Omicron variant and daily new record infection figures, the government has openly acknowledged its policy of deliberate mass infection. With the return to face-to-face teaching and compulsory oral final examinations in high schools, this inhumane course is being pushed even further.

In the capital, Vienna, many students gathered in protests at several schools. In the Ottakring district, about 150 pupils protested on Schuhmeierplatz. With posters and chants, they demanded a safe pandemic policy and the suspension of the oral exam. Under the hashtags #WirStreiken (#WeAreStriking), #NichtMitUns (#NotWithUs) and #DurchseuchungOhneUns (#MassInfectionNotWithUs), the students documented their activities and spread their demands.

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Around 100 students also demonstrated against the oral examination in front of the Bundesrealgymnasium in Linz. Participants from the graduating classes were supported by pupils from the 6th and 7th grades, as well as pupils from other schools. In Bregenz, about 100 students from the upper school protested.

During protests in Salzburg, student representatives announced that they would go on strike again next week if the government did not respond to the students’ demands. In Klagenfurt, pupils also took part in the strike, although both the Federal Pupils’ Representation and the Carinthia Regional Pupils’ Representation had spoken out against the strike.

In addition to the Aktion kritischer SchülerInnen (AKS, Critical Pupils Action), which is close to the Austrian Social Democratic Party, SPÖ), numerous school representatives supported and called for protests. Some limited their protest to the fact that the oral exam was not compulsory for graduation, which is absolutely justified in view of the pandemic, as well as because of inadequate preparation.

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One million children in the US have COVID-19

Nearly one million US children are now reported to have COVID-19, according to statistics released by the Association of American Pediatricians (AAP) today. The 981,488 afflicted children is four times last year’s winter peak, a tripling of case counts from two weeks prior, and a 69 percent increase over the week ending January 6, when cases leapt by 580,000.

The exponential leap in pediatric cases has been accompanied by nearly 2,000 new hospitalizations. This is double the number of children fighting for their lives in hospital beds during the past two weeks than ever before.

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Statements of support pour in for striking Oakland, California students

Statement of support have begun coming in for striking students in Oakland, California. Over 1,200 students have begun a strike over unsafe conditions as the virus rapidly infects the district. Teachers at three school sites are also walking out in support of their students.

The WSWS spoke to Sarah, an Oakland teacher, on the picket line in Oakland.

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Jazmine, a seventh grade Oakland teacher, said: “It’s starting to look in my classroom like the end times, an apocalyptic type thing because so many of my students are [out with Covid].”

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Michael, a parent from San Luis Obispo, California tweeted:

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Janet, a teacher from San Diego, sent a photo and statement.

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She stated:

I'm a teacher here in San Diego California, and I support the students in Oakland because the lives of students and teachers are at risk! If these students feel so unsafe that they are going to go through the trouble to take action in defense of their good health, then they need the support of adults who will have their back. A person's health is the single most important thing they have. Without it no learning can take place. It must be safeguarded at all costs! Oakland students who are looking out for themselves and their teachers are supported by me and other San Diego teachers!

A nurse in southern California posted the following statement of support:

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Renae, another teacher in California shared why she support striking students.

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Megan, a mother in Oregon, wrote in a message of her support to students:

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Earlier Dorothy, the grandmother of an OUSD middle school student, told the WSWS:

I want to thank the brave students who are taking action today. You are helping not only to keep our students and teachers safe, but also their vulnerable family members who could be hospitalized or worse if students bring Covid home.

West Coast Educators Rank-and-File Committees call emergency meeting to stop in-person learning

West Coast Educators Rank-and-File Safety Committees Meeting

The West Coast Educators Rank-and-File Committees have called an emergency meeting for Sunday, January 23 at 12:00 pm PST. The meeting will discuss the organization of a movement of teachers, students, and the entire working class to stop in-person learning as part of a broader strategy aimed at eliminating COVID-19.

To register for the meeting, click here.

High School students across Broward County, Florida announce a walkout on Monday morning against in-person learning

More than one hundred students at various K-12 schools across Broward County, Florida announced today that they will walk out of class on Monday morning to protest the county school board’s reckless COVID-19 policies. They are demanding an increase in safety measures to stop transmission of the disease through schools.

The students issued an open letter on social media to the Broward County School Board demanding officials put in place policies that will curb the spread of the pandemic.

The open letter notes a number of grim statistics showing the explosive growth of COVID-19 infections in Broward. An average of 7,179 cases have been recorded each day, while the county’s positivity rate remains at a staggering 37.8 percent. More than 8,000 students and teachers have tested positive for the virus this school year, with 40 percent of these cases occurring since winter break.

The letter explains that the school administrators should “prioritize the health and safety of its workers and students” and “ensure a more disruptive period of school does not happen later.” The students’ demands include: return to remote learning for at least two weeks to stop Covid spread on campuses, the provision of N95 masks to all students to effectively curb the spread of the virus, and weekly PCR tests for staff to isolate and contain COVID outbreaks.

St. Paul, Minnesota students walkout to protest unsafe school conditions

Students from all eight St. Paul, Minnesota high schools and some middle schools are walking out of classrooms today to protest the Saint Paul Public School (SPPS) district’s unsafe return to in-person learning amidst the deadliest wave of the COVID-19 to date. The walkout began at 1 p.m. CT.

At least two Minnesota students and eight educators died last year from COVID-19 complications. Cases are surging in Minnesota, and the seven-day average stands at nearly 9,000 a day.

Earlier today, St. Paul students held a press conference at Highland Park Senior High School.

Jerome Treadwell, a Highland Park Senior High School senior and executive director of Minnesota Teen Activists, a group organizing the walkouts, said: “District and administration are not in the school building regularly. They are not spending seven hours a day surrounded by unmasked kids, overwhelmed teachers, understaffed nurses and an abundance of other things. This is an equity issue. This is life or death.”

A survey circulating among students asking about concerns over in-person learning has received over 200 responses. Speaking on the survey, Treadwell said, “Some students even expressed their worries about getting their high-risk family members sick from exposure at school. A student said, and I quote, ‘I’m concerned about my grandparents and my dad, who are high-risk, and going to school every day makes me feel guilty and scared for them which makes it pretty hard for me to focus on my assignments.’”

An online petition listing the students’s demands has received over 1,400 signatures as of this writing. The petition states, “Students feel uncomfortable in schools because of SPPS’s failure to follow health guidelines and keep SPPS students & their families safe. SPPS currently has almost 2,000 positive Covid cases, meaning this district alone has gained 1,000 cases in the last week.”

Over one thousand Oakland, California students walk out to demand online instruction

Over 1,200 Oakland, California students have begun an indefinite strike today, demanding online instruction until schools are made safe. The students join thousands of other educators and young people throughout the country fighting for the emergency closure of schools to stop the spread of COVID-19.

A World Socialist Web Site reporting team is on the ground in Oakland speaking to teachers who are staging their own walkout to support the striking students. 

Teachers at United for Success Academy Middle School walk out in support of Oakland, California students. (WSWS Media, January 18, 2021)

Teachers and staff at United for Success Academy Middle School, Bridges Elementary School and Woodland Elementary School are all taking action today. At United for Success, five out of the twelve teachers that run the school are currently quarantining due to Covid. The rest walked out of classes today. 

Jazmine, a seventh grade humanities teacher at the protest told the WSWS, “We are out here to support the students… The way things are currently, with the Omicron surge, it sort of makes things particularly difficult because things have been spreading so fast. At this time I think the best and safest choice would be to go to distance learning.”

Jazmine explained the vast chasm that exists between the Oakland Unified School Board and the teachers and students: “People on the Board make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Being a new teacher after taxes I clear barely $40,000. With rent that is like $1,000 a month, it is really hard to not be struggling. And people on the board are not even working in their offices. They are working from home because it is safer to do that, but they expect us to be in person with students, basically putting lives at risk. I think that is really unjust and really gross and disgusting.”

Statements of support for striking Oakland students are beginning to come in from parents, teachers, and others.

Dorothy, the grandmother of an OUSD middle school student, told the WSWS, “I want to thank the brave students who are taking action today. You are helping not only to keep our students and teachers safe, but also their vulnerable family members who could be hospitalized or worse if students bring Covid home.”

We urge readers to send in their own statements of support for the striking students.

Record surge in COVID-19 child deaths as opposition grows among US educators and students

By Emma Arceneaux

The first two weeks of the spring semester for K-12 schools have been a colossal disaster across the United States. At the federal, state and local levels, both the Democratic and Republican parties insist that all schools must continue fully in-person instruction during the worst surge in the pandemic. This homicidal policy is fueling the spread of COVID-19 and has produced a record surge of cases, hospitalizations and now deaths among children.

“Into school, it's the safest place for kids”

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, since December 31, only two and a half weeks ago, 87 children under age 18 have died from COVID-19. Of those, 28 occurred between January 14-17, a staggering rate of nine children per day. This rate is roughly three times the peak of the Delta surge, over the course of which more than 500 children died. The latest American Academy of Pediatrics report will be published later today and will almost certainly show another record increase in cases above last week’s record 580,247.

The working class and youth have responded to the unfolding catastrophe with a resounding demand to stop in-person instruction as a necessary measure to end viral transmission and save lives. Inspired by teachers in Chicago, thousands of students across the US, from New York City to Chicago to Boston, staged walkouts last week to demand remote learning. Over 1,200 students in Oakland will walk out today, as the district has failed to meet their list of safety demands.

A high school student who attends Oakland School for the Arts (OSA) highlighted the crisis operations of the publicly funded charter school founded by former California governor Jerry Brown.

“At OSA, we went online this week because so many teachers went into quarantine. We didn’t have enough adults on campus to legally keep the school open. They had all the substitutes in and had administrators in classrooms. They still didn’t have enough.

“We still have not closed for COVID. They’re opening in-person this week. It is not a COVID-safe building. It’s an old building with small hallways, and some entirely closed classrooms.

“I know OUSD agreed to give out N95 masks. I don’t think OSA will get those. They are offering testing, but it’s not enough for all the students and it’s not very often. It’s not safe. I think most of the students and teachers agree that we shouldn’t be in-person right now.”

Making the connection between these unsafe policies and the Democratic Party-controlled California and Oakland governments, she continued, “Of course California is not letting us [go remote] either. The individual schools themselves, like OSA, don’t get enough funding to be able to take the safety of students into its own hands. The school doesn’t get funded enough to be able to close because they’ll lose funding. Oakland could do something, but they aren’t.”

She added, “Politicians care about the money more than they care about the people. The Democrats are not even holding up the facade very well about caring about people.”

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The way forward for high school students in the fight against the pandemic and the reopening of schools

Full Statement from the International Youth and Students for Social Equality

The International Youth and Students for Social Equality (IYSSE), the youth and student movement of the Socialist Equality Party (SEP), welcomes and supports the courageous stand taken by students. 

The IYSSE is a socialist youth group, fighting to link up the struggle of students and youth with teachers, parents and other workers in a common fight against the reckless “herd immunity” policy of the entire political establishment, which encourages the virus to run rampant, regardless of the carnage.

Left to right: Brehami, Allan, Mitchum, and John (WSWS Media)

The disastrous impact of the pandemic is the result of decisions made by capitalist governments—first and foremost, in the United States —to deliberately prioritize profits over lives, to reject the implementation of public health measures required to eliminate the virus and, instead, to adopt policies that allow the virus to spread widely throughout the global population.

The reopening of schools has always been at the center of the ruling class’ pandemic “strategy.” In order for workers to return to work and continue to pump out profits for the rich, their kids must be back in school.

Full Statement

We call on all students to join the International Youth and Students for Social Equality.

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