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Worried about their health and safety in the ongoing pandemic, hundreds of Boston Public Schools students walked out of their classrooms on Friday morning in protest of the state’s continuing policy that all classes must be held in-person, despite a dramatic spike in local COVID-19 cases.
District officials estimated about 600 students left their classes across 11 high schools around 10:30 a.m., Sharra Gaston, a BPS spokesperson, told Boston.com in an email.
“Many went back into their school/classroom, some went home, but none loitered or caused disruptions around their school communities,” Gaston wrote. “The protest remained peaceful.”
The walk-out came on the heels of a Change.org petition signed by over 8,000 people that calls on Gov. Charlie Baker and other state officials to allow schools the option to shift to remote learning due to significant virus spread.
“Forcing students to attend in-person learning simply isn’t safe. In packed conditions such as the hallway, lunchrooms, and auditoriums, and given the alarming infection rate of the new Omicron variant, schools have become a literal COVID-19 breeding ground,” William Hu, a senior student at Boston Latin School and petition organizer, wrote on the petition’s webpage.
“Students every day are testing positive all around Massachusetts, posing a significant health risk to themselves as well as their loved ones. Some schools don’t even strictly enforce a mask-wearing policy,” Hu’s statement read. “Not to forget that students often live with vulnerable loved ones, to which bringing COVID home is essentially a death sentence.”
Hu has seen the number of coronavirus cases swell among his peers in recent weeks, with 30 confirmed cases among his class of 370 recorded even before the winter break, he wrote.
“This is only the tip of the iceberg. Across Massachusetts, daily cases are skyrocketing,” Hu wrote. “A simple Google search brings you a crystal-clear graph that shows daily cases are in the tens of thousands, and they don’t seem to stop increasing.”
A program for Friday’s demonstration indicated students planned to walk out at 10:30, with a webinar and phone-banking session, during which students would call and email city and state officials, at 11:30, according to a tweet by the Boston Student Advisory Council, a student organization with representatives across the district.
Speeches from students, teachers, nurses, and families were expected to follow at 12:30. A public comment period was scheduled for 1:30.
Specifically, students are calling on officials to provide the option for schools to shift to remote learning for two weeks, along with proper personal protective equipment and testing for every BPS school.
“All across the city and state of Massachusetts students, teachers and staff are feeling vulnerable in their own schools,” BSAC said in a letter to state officials, obtained by The Boston Globe. “Not due to gun violence, fights, etc… but due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of protection that they were supposed to receive.”
Among other requests, demonstrators are also seeking a change in the quarantine guidelines for teachers and students, although those changes were not detailed in the materials.
“No one is requesting a complete turn to remote learning, just an option so that kids can stay safe and still maintain their education,” Hu wrote on the petition. “‘In-person school’ should not be the only way to learn, we figured that out last year. We are not starting at square one.”
In a statement responding to the walk-out on Friday, BPS said it “believes deeply in students advocating for what they believe in.”
“We further believe it is critically important that we encourage and support them in expressing their concerns, beliefs and positions to their leaders,” the statement reads. “We will continue to listen to our students and families as we navigate this latest surge and the impacts it has on our ability to remain in person and deliver a quality education.”
In an email to school leaders, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius wrote that students who participated in the walk-out should be given an excused absence as long as they returned to class “immediately” after the webinar.
Cassellius directed administrators to mark students who remained in school but still attended the webinar as “constructively present.” If schools provided space for the students, those students could be “marked present at the school leader’s discretion,” Cassellius added.
Students were required to make up any missed work, she wrote.
“I deeply believe in students activating their voice for change and helping our students advocate for the issues that matter to them,” Cassellius wrote to school leaders. “I have encouraged students to work with you to constructively share their concerns.”
Baker and other state officials have consistently held the line on requiring that students and teachers attend school in-person this year to fulfill state-mandated requirements.
Last week, as students, teachers, and staff returned to school buildings after the winter break, the governor said he expected the return to be “a challenging period of time” but remained adamant about keeping the status quo.
“The rules here are pretty simple,” he said. “We count in-person school as school. If a school district is not open, at some point over the course of the year, they can use snow days until they run out of snow days, but they do need to provide their kids with 180 days of in-person education this year. And we’ll do whatever we can to help them deliver on that.”
BPS reported over 1,000 staff absences last week amid the virus surge, although not all of those employees were out sick.
Mayor Michelle Wu suggested she hoped state officials would provide some flexibility surrounding the in-person policy.
“DESE currently is not allowing for any remote learning whatsoever, even if it is due to staffing shortages, and so we continue to talk with them about the rigidity of that policy,” Wu said last week.
Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, who has repeatedly called on Baker to take more stringent action in the state’s pandemic response, voiced support for the BPS students participating in Friday’s demonstration.
“Our ongoing COVID-19 response must always center the health, safety and wellbeing of our young people. I stand in solidarity with the students demanding stronger COVID-19 safety measures, including remote learning flexibilities, and I urge Governor Baker and (DESE) Secretary (Jeffrey) Riley to heed their calls,” Pressley said in a statement.
“All students and educators deserve to be safe and healthy in school,” the statement continues. “The Baker Administration’s refusal to provide much-needed flexibilities for schools facing record staffing shortages and surges in cases is dangerous, and they must reverse course.”
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