By Carly Mitchell, Teacher / New York City
(The author is using a pseudonym for professional reasons)
I am happy to report that students across the country are striking back at policymakers who refuse to provide a safe virtual learning option. Here in New York City, on January 11 at 11:52 a.m., members of the student ranks of Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, Brooklyn Technical High School, and a few other schools scattered throughout the five boroughs, protested current conditions in their classrooms by walking out of their schools.
Details about the event were advertised on an Instagram page, “Nycstudentwalkout2022”. A student’s post from January 8 explained the reason for the coordinated protest. “The ultimate goal of the walkout is to garner attention from policymakers that can help close down schools temporarily. Remote and/or hybrid instruction will occur in the meantime, until Covid cases drop from the current spike.”
It appears to have worked, at least for the moment. While it is unclear how many young people participated in the event, the “Nycstudentwalkout2022” page reported that they received the attention of Chancellor David C. Banks, who Tweeted that same afternoon, “The best decisions are made when everyone has a seat at the table– I’m inviting student leaders to meet with me so we can work together for safe and open schools.”
Similar events are happening across the country. Middle and high school students in Oakland, California wrote a petition to the school district, board, and the superintendent. In the petition,
students griped that they were not comfortable coming to school as Covid cases continue to soar. They called for a remote learning option, and better safety measures such as providing KN95 or N95 masks for students and weekly PCR testing.
Befitting the long tradition of activism in California schools, the students were nothing if not forceful. “The district has one week, starting Monday, January 10th, to meet our demands” the petition thundered. “If the demands are not met by Monday, January 17th, students will strike starting Tuesday, January 18th by not going to school. Friday January 21st, we will strike outside the OUSD Building and it will last until the demands are met.” So far, more than 1,200 students have signed.
Across the country in Chicago, students from several schools walked out of their classes on January 14. Bloomberg.com reported, “The protest, organized by the Chicago Public School’s Radical Youth Alliance, came days after the nation’s third-largest district returned to in-person learning after a week-long dispute between the teachers’ union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who pressed for schools to be open.”
As a public-school teacher in Brooklyn who just recovered from Covid, I am thrilled to watch thousands of students finding their voices. The past month has been a nightmare. I receive at least three emails a week informing me that I have been exposed to Covid. Attendance is down, colleagues have fallen ill, and everyone in my school building is exhausted. Virtual learning is not an ideal solution–as I wrote last week, nobody likes virtual learning–but at what point will the bigwigs in charge decide that enough is enough?
Student and teacher concerns are similar across the country. Classrooms tend to be overcrowded, proper PPE is not provided, and testing measures are inadequate. Adding to the deteriorating situation is a nationwide teacher and substitute shortage. On January 6, a New York City high school student lamented via a Reddit post which has since gone viral that students were not learning anything because so many teachers were out. I can attest to this. Since we returned from break two weeks ago, the halls in my middle school in Brooklyn are noticeably emptier of both teachers and students because so many people have tested positive.
Some savvy school districts in the country have taken the hint and gone virtual, like the Cleveland Metro Schools and a number of schools in New Jersey. But sadly, there is no definitive word on what is going to happen in New York City. In a news conference on January 13, Mayor Eric Adams backpedaled on his hardline in-person-school-or-nothing, and told reporters, “We will find the right way to educate our children in a very safe environment and if we’re able to put in place a temporarily remote option, we’re welcome to do so.”
Many educators in New York, including many of my colleagues, took this to mean that perhaps we would be offered a virtual learning option. But only one day later at a press briefing, Adams waffled. “I don’t know if there was a misinterpretation of what I said yesterday. Schools are not closing. I want to be very clear on that. We are not closing schools.” Is that clear, New York City?
I do not think students at the middle school where I teach will be participating in walk-outs anytime soon. This is not to say that they are not politically minded, opinionated, or on the path to becoming activists. Rather, many of my students are just exhausted and overwhelmed by the past year and a half. I think that like their teachers, they feel like they do not have a say in any of this.
For now, Gotham’s teachers sit in limbo, wondering if we will be heard or if the flip-flop political rhetoric will continue. I am willing to bet on the latter. In the meantime, I will continue to show up, teach to the best of my ability, and weather the storm.
Carly Mitchell (a pseudonym) is a public-school teacher in Brooklyn N.Y. who loves to learn, to educate, and to expose the hypocrisy of New York City politicians.