As parents across Los Angeles dropped their kids off at school Monday morning, they were greeted by picket lines of teachers, many dressed in red ponchos and holding red umbrellas.
For the first time in nearly 30 years, educators in LA are on strike.
"Teachers want what students need," a crowd outside Theodore Roosevelt Senior High School in Boyle Heights chanted in the pouring rain.
"Sí se puede" — yes we can — declared a crowd of educators outside Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Koreatown. In a video posted to Twitter, that same crowd stopped a school district truck from driving onto campus.
Demonstrators showed up at schools across the district with signs that read "We stand with LA educators," "Our students deserve smaller class sizes," and "On strike for our students," many of them also in Spanish.
By midmorning, educators and their supporters had converged in Grand Park, across from Los Angeles City Hall, in a sea of umbrellas, ponchos and signs. They rang cow bells, played drums and chanted in the direction of city hall. "Think we'll give up easily?" one sign read. "ASK US HOW LONG WE WAIT TO PEE."
United Teachers Los Angeles has been negotiating a new contract with the school district for nearly two years. The union's 30,000-plus members — which include teachers, librarians, nurses and more — have been working without a contract for over a year.
In a voice message to parents Sunday night, LA Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner said, "We did not want a strike. We tried our best to avoid it and we will continue to work around the clock to find a solution to end the strike."
Elementary, middle and high schools in the country's second largest school district remain open for the nearly half a million students affected by the strike. They're staffed by administrators, volunteers and newly-hired substitutes. The district says learning will still take place and has set up a hotline for families to call with questions.
Schools will continue to serve free- or reduced-price meals to the 81 percent of district students who rely on them.
Some preschools are closed, while other early education centers in the district are only open to students with special needs.
The district's teacher salary offer is close to what the union has asked for, but the strike is about more than pay for educators. Union leaders want smaller class sizes and more counselors and librarians. They're also asking for a full-time nurse in every school.
The district announced a new offer on Friday, including additional funds for smaller class sizes, but union leaders were not satisfied.
No negotiations are planned for Monday.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Los Angeles public schools opened today without their teachers. Instead, classrooms were staffed by administrators, volunteers and newly hired substitutes. For the first time in nearly 30 years, teachers in the nation's second-largest school district were on strike. NPR's Elissa Nadworny went to the picket lines when the school day began and filed this report.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: So it's 8:05. I'm outside Kingsley Elementary School in East Hollywood. Teachers are out front with red umbrellas and picket signs, and they're greeting parents and students as they're arriving for school Monday morning. And they're letting them know they're not going to be inside.
SONIA SALGADO: Hi. We just want to let you know that teachers are on strike today. Habla Espanol?
NADWORNY: That's kindergarten teacher Sonia Salgado greeting parents and students as they arrive. She and other teachers are outside braving the heavy rain because of failed negotiations between their union, United Teachers Los Angeles and the city's public school district, which enrolls about half a million students.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)
NADWORNY: As the school day starts, just a handful of students head inside. The school building is staffed by administrators, volunteers and newly hired substitutes. Outside, some of the union's more than 30,000 members are chanting and singing.
UNIDENTIFIED TEACHERS: (Chanting in Spanish).
NADWORNY: On salary, the district and the union are actually pretty close. The main reason teachers are striking today - they want smaller classes and nurses in schools five days a week, among other things. The district says it just doesn't have the money to pay for all that. The last offer from the district, which upped its spending by about $25 million, didn't satisfy the union. LA Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner called parents on Sunday night with this message.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
AUSTIN BEUTNER: We did not want a strike. We tried our best to avoid it, and we will continue to work around the clock to find a solution to end the strike.
NADWORNY: But there aren't any negotiations scheduled for today. The union says it's focused on the strike. Parents we've spoken to over the last few days have mixed reactions. Some parents are opting to keep their kids home. For other parents, bringing their kids to school is the better option. And for working families, it may be the only option. Some teachers say they understand.
MARIA GONZALES: My name is Maria Gonzales. I teach kindergarten. It's my 21st year teaching in LAUSD.
NADWORNY: Gonzales grew up in LA and went to public schools here.
GONZALES: My grandfather came to this country from Mexico at the age of 9, and he stopped going to school at 9 to pick lemons and avocados. He never let us forget that education was his dream.
NADWORNY: Her parents both taught in the district. Her father texted her last night, be strong. We're with you.
GONZALES: We have to care. We have to acknowledge that these are children of color. These are children that - they receive free, reduced lunch. The nurse and the psychologist are oftentimes the only health care professionals they're in contact with.
NADWORNY: As she looks back at where her classroom is, she feels torn. She'd much rather be inside, teaching her kindergartners.
GONZALES: I hope they really relate this the strike to the fact that this city cares about them.
NADWORNY: After drop-off ended, teachers carpooled, took buses and trains and made their way downtown to meet up en masse with other teachers and supporters.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) Mighty, mighty teachers...
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Mighty, mighty teachers...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) ...Fighting for justice.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) ...Fighting for justice.
NADWORNY: So we're here in Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles right in front of city hall, and it is just a sea of umbrellas and ponchos and signs as far as the eye can see. Teachers and parents and students are out here supporting the strike. It's hard to know how long this strike will last. The last LA teachers strike in 1989 lasted nine days. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.