D.C. public school students walked out of their classrooms and organized a virtual rally Tuesday calling for improved health protocols and a more flexible virtual learning policy amid a COVID-19 surge.
In the week since it formed, Students for Safe Learning — which describes itself as a group of District students acting to safeguard their own health — has used Twitter and Instagram to muster support.
“We aren’t just kids talking to talk. We know that we have to advocate for ourselves and families,” the group said on Twitter. “There’s so much stress that comes with not knowing if you’re bringing something home to your family and friends. It all takes a toll on our mental health.”
Social media posts showed dozens of students outside Benjamin Banneker High School in Northwest.
— Becky Reina (@BeckyCReina) January 25, 2022
D.C. mom Becky Reina told WTOP she was walking with her own kids up the street from Banneker so they could watch the students walk out. She said it wasn’t “a festive atmosphere.”
“Kids are scared,” Reina said. “And I think that they’re scared in their schools. And they’re also scared to do something so drastic. Walking out of the school is a big deal.”
While Banneker may have seen the largest walkout, she added that she heard Wilson High School had “a decent number of kids planning.”
A school system spokesman said the walkout, which had some 30 students at Banneker, is the only walkout the city is aware of and added the city doesn’t have a statement on the matter.
Council member and mayoral hopeful Robert White tweeted his support of the walkout.
“We know students learn better in school. The only way to safely keep our schools open is to take proactive measures. I fully support the call for 100% weekly testing outlined in this memo,” White said.
In an Instagram post, organizers said they had forgone a physical march and rally to avoid overcrowding.
Online flyers asked students to wear red during the walkout and sought support from parents and teachers, while encouraging participants to share images of the walkout on social media and contact D.C. officials to explain their reasons for protesting.
Their demands include a temporary pivot back to virtual learning until the omicron surge eases off, and a virtual option for all families who choose it — DCPS currently limits remote instruction to students who meet certain medical requirements.
At a virtual rally Tuesday afternoon, one Banneker student said that when students have to quarantine because of exposure it essentially feels like being “stranded” because there are no other resources to help students complete assignments posted on the course management system.
“We can experience the actual lecture; we can’t experience the actual lesson; we can’t experience anything else we need to know in order to complete the assignment,” she said.
D.C. schools spokesman Enrique Gutierrez said instruction for students quarantining may be “fully virtual, a mix of simultaneous instruction and self-guided, or fully self-guided depending on the number of students in isolation/quarantine and availability of teacher.”
Another student said that while quarantining after a coronavirus test, her absences were not excused. And later when she did get COVID-19, the absences were also not excused.
Gutierrez said a positive test for the coronavirus is an excused absence. “Like all illness-related absences, they need to notify the school,” he said.
Students for Safe Learning also calls for the weekly testing of all students and staff, free KN95 or N95 mask distribution in schools, better classroom ventilation, safer meal spaces and the reinstatement of regular deep cleanings — measures organizers see as important in ensuring the safety of themselves and their families.
Currently, only staff are provided KN95 masks, and the school system’s asymptomatic testing program requires it to test 20% of students at every school weekly. Rapid tests have been made available for younger students who have had difficulty producing an adequate saliva sample for the PCR tests.
During the virtual rally, one student said that testing did not feel random and that measures the school was doing with cleaning did not make her feel safe.
Gutierrez said each week all 116 schools conduct asymptomatic testing and aim to test at least 20% of the student population.
As for cleaning, he said the schools got a deep cleaning at the start of the school year, and continue to get deep cleaning during schools breaks and as needed.
“Our schools will continue to receive daily enhanced cleaning by custodial staff. Enhanced Cleaning will be the daily standard cleaning routines custodial staff complete with particular focus on all frequently touched surfaces in common areas and restrooms, including but not limited to doorknobs and push/pulls, light switches, elevator buttons, tables, sink faucets, toilets, chairs, drinking fountains and any other common area hard surfaces,” Gutierrez said.
Thousands of high school students across the country, including at public schools in Oakland, Denver and Chicago, have taken part in walkouts for safer classrooms ever since infections set new pandemic-wide records earlier this month.
Tuesday’s D.C. walkout also comes less than a week after students in neighboring Montgomery County held a similar action pressuring local officials to go virtual due to surging cases. A major shortage of drivers led the Maryland county to request National Guard assistance to bolster school bus service.
WTOP’s Shayna Estulin, Abigail Constantino, Scott Gelman and Alejandro Alvarez contributed to this report.