Students Fight for Safe Schools across the U.S.

High school students in Chicago walk out of class to demand adequate safety protections at school. (Image Credit: Teen Vogue)

For two years, students have been told by school boards and politicians that they will have to put aside their fears and needs in order to do what they are told because it is so-called best for them. Students have had to attend classes through computer screens trying their best to learn without the resources to succeed. We have been left to deal with social isolation and emotional crises that are far too common in this pandemic. At other times, we have had to pack ourselves like sardines in unventilated classrooms without proper masking, testing, or safety protocols, while being told by school officials that returning to in-person learning is of the utmost importance. What is not of most importance to these officials is that students could get long COVID, or they or someone they live with may be immunocompromised, or that the chaos of students constantly switching from quarantining to in-person and back undercuts learning, or that there aren’t teachers because they are sick. And with all that, those most affected by COVID school policies, the students, have had no say at all in what their education should be like.

The turn of the year has marked a change in the consciousness of students. Omicron has wreaked havoc through our world yet another time. During the worst surge since the beginning of the pandemic, the people in power tried to reassure us that things were okay, to ignore it and return to normal. Students were faced with a choice to return in-person without any of the proper protections and risk their lives or to stand up for themselves. As one Chicago student protester’s sign read, “Masks are disposable. Our lives are not.” From coast to coast, we have seen students list their demands and walk out of their schools, refusing to accept the breadcrumbs the people in power have tossed them. Cities large and small, like Austin, Boston, Chicago, New York City, Oakland, Okemos (MI), St. Paul, and many more saw thousands of students organize and march out of their schools, sometimes while their family members, teachers, and others also organized. Students listed many of the same demands, like free KN95 masks, free testing for everyone, notice of COVID exposure, outdoor options for eating, and the option for online learning.

When school boards were pressured to respond to students’ demands, many had excuses like “enforcing the mask mandate is difficult because the district is in a legal dispute with the state.” Or as John Sasaki, the Communications Director for Oakland Unified School District, noted, they had ordered “the supplies for new covered eating spaces at dozens of schools… last summer,” but “Supply line issues have slowed their delivery significantly.” This begs the question: if school district leaders knew what they needed to provide, but still opened schools unprepared to protect students, then why did they go back to in-person at all? These excuses are not enough; students need safe schools. And students are showing they will not accept these answers.

The first of these strikes have inspired other students across the United States to fight for what they need. The strikes also show how undemocratically run our schools are. The health and safety of students for the entire pandemic have been thrown aside. Even though every policy passed by school boards drastically affects the quality of students’ lives, students are left out of every conversation. The actions of school boards across the U.S. have shown students that they have to take matters into their own hands and fight for safe schools. These students are showing us that if we want to live in a world where our health and well-being are put first, we cannot wait for the people in power to give it to us; we must organize and take what is rightfully ours.