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. Kayla Quinlan (16 years old), a student activist at Boston Day and Evening Academy, stated that it is our bodies we are putting at greatest risk. “Students should have a say in what their learning environment looks like, but our voices are always left out.”
There has been pressure on school officials to remain open, despite the fact that students and their academic well-being are at stake. Research has shown extended school closures during the pandemic have exacerbated mental health challenges and worsened learning outcomes.
Although specific requests may vary, the majority of students’ demands revolve around remote learning as an option for those not able to come to school. Students’ coalitions have called for full remote learning, but only temporarily, if schools don’t enforce more strict COVID-19 precautions such as frequent testing or higher quality masks.
Quinlan stated that despite the rise in COVID-19 infections across the nation, Quinlan noted that many Boston schools are now taking precautions more seriously and not often enforcing social distancing or masking.
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“It feels like a breeding ground for COVID, like a COVID petri dish,” she said. “How are you supposed to feel safe?”
Quinlan explained that this is the reason students across Massachusetts plan to walk out on Friday morning. Similar protests by students have been held in New York City and Milwaukee as well as Seattle, Seattle, and Oakland, California.
Chicago Public Schools Radical Youth Alliance will lead a walkout for students Friday morning after they return to class two days earlier. This is what the alliance 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 stated on Twitter that they had received a similar message 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.”
Students in New York City walked out of school Tuesday afternoon to seek remote learning opportunities. This was part of a rapid spread of the omicron virus 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.
Her mother told her that she had cried prior to winter break. She was anxious about returning to school in the face of surging cases. 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.
According to her, remote learning will make students feel more secure and provide better quality instruction for classrooms that have been disrupted due to spikes in caseloads.
“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.
Farrow shared, “It’s encouraging that we are not the only ones who fight,” he said.
In Oakland, students organized a sick-in Thursday and created a petition signed by over 1,200 students. Ayleen Serrano (15 years old) is a sophomore at MetWest High School. She said organizers had received emails offering support from students across California. These included San Jose and Los Angeles as well as Florida, Texas, and Canada.
Serrano expressed excitement at the spread of this idea. “I hope we inspire others to share their voice.”
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 claimed that a large part of this increase in student activism was due to George Floyd’s killing and concern about climate change. This is the first time he’s seen student activism so high since the 1970s and 1960s.
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We live in an era of turmoil, the stakes for our future are very high. These issues affect students,” he stated. 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. She was tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday.
“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. We do it because we have to. We deserve more. We deserve safety. And we are going to fight for change.”