As teachers unions and schools battle over in-person and remote learning, students nationwide are demanding a seat at the table. Many are staging walkouts this week.
“We are the ones who have been in this environment every day. It’s our bodies that we’re putting at risk,” said Kayla Quinlan, a 16-year-old student activist at Boston Day and Evening Academy. “Students should have a say in what their learning environment looks like, but our voices are always left out.”
School officials have also faced pressure to stay open for the sake of students’ academic, social and mental well-being. Research has shown extended school closures during the pandemic have exacerbated mental health challenges and worsened learning outcomes.
While specific demands vary, students’ requests largely center around allowing remote learning options as an alternative for those who are worried about coming to school, rather than shutting classrooms down altogether. Student coalitions that have advocated for shifting fully to remote have only called to do so temporarily if schools do not enforce stricter COVID-19 precautions, including more frequent testing and higher-quality masks.
Despite surging COVID-19 cases across the country, fueled by the highly-contagious omicron variant, Quinlan said many Boston schools have started to take precautions less seriously, often not enforcing masking or social distancing.
“It feels like a breeding ground for COVID, like a COVID petri dish,” she said. “How are you supposed to feel safe?”
This is why students in Boston and elsewhere in Massachusetts are planning a walkout Friday morning, Quinlan said. Similar student walkouts and protests have happened in New York City, Milwaukee, Seattle and Oakland, California.
And after returning to class just two days ago, students in Chicago will also stage a walkout Friday morning, led by a new organization called Chicago Public Schools Radical Youth Alliance. The alliance has demanded CPS and government officials “bring students to the bargaining table” in ongoing negotiations with teachers, who refused to come to in-person school for a week. Students also want public apologies for comments officials made about the Chicago Teachers Union during the intense stand-off last week.
“We stand with the educators, mentors, adult supports, and parents of our school communities, but most importantly, we stand for ourselves, our peers, & our needs,” the alliance said on Twitter last week. “We believe that WE should be the ones to execute, steer, and decide what is best for ourselves, our lives, our health, and our safety.”
Around lunchtime Tuesday, hundreds of New York City students walked out of class to call for remote learning options during a wave of cases as the omicron variant rapidly spreads through the city.
Samantha Farrow, a 16-year-old student organizer at Stuyvesant High School, called it an “uplifting moment” and said she felt less alone in her fears about COVID cases in schools.
Before winter break, she cried to her mother, anxious about going to school with surging cases, especially while living with an immunocompromised family member. When she returned to school this year, she said it was “pretty desolate,” with half-empty classrooms and missing teachers. Due to staffing shortages, most days have been “non-instructional days” spent reading on her own or scrolling through her phone.
She said a remote learning option will not only help students feel safer but offer better-quality instruction in classrooms already disrupted by spikes in cases.
“Students are the ones having to go to school every day in these conditions,” she said. “We have ideas about what can help make this better.”
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Several student activists told USA TODAY walkouts nationwide have offered hope and a sense of solidarity after they’ve felt sidelined by local and district officials in conversations about COVID in schools.
“It’s encouraging to see that we’re not the only ones fighting, that there are people in other states who are fighting for the same cause and we have each other’s backs,” Farrow said.
In Oakland, students organized a sick-in Thursday and created a petition signed by over 1,200 students. Ayleen Serrano, a 15-year-old sophomore at MetWest High School, said organizers have gotten emails of support from students in cities across California, including San Jose and Los Angeles, as well as from Florida, Texas and Canada.
“It’s so exciting to see this spread so far,” Serrano said. “I hope what we’re doing is inspiring others to use their voices.”
The string of walkouts this week are part of a renewed period of growth for high school activism, said Joseph Kahne, a professor of education policy at University of California, Riverside.
He said much of this spike in student protests came about in response to the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, George Floyd’s murder and concerns about climate change. He hasn’t seen such an upswing in student activism since the 1960s and 1970s.
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“We’re living in a tumultuous time, and the stakes are high. Students recognize that these issues will affect them,” he said. Protests over COVID policies “add something valuable to our political discourse by letting us hear from the young people these policies affect most.”
When her fellow student activists leave their classrooms in Boston on Friday morning, Quinlan won’t be joining them in the walkout she helped organize. On Wednesday, she found out she tested positive for COVID-19.
“I’m really sad that I won’t be able to be there showing solidarity with my fellow peers,” she said. “There’s this sort of painful irony. But this is exactly the reason why we’re doing this. We deserve more. We deserve safety. And we are going to fight for change.”