Chicago Students Demand Covid Safety, Joining Peers Around U.S.
(Bloomberg) -- Students in Chicago on Friday joined others across the U.S. to fight for more Covid-19 safety measures and remote learning, a conflict that has been playing out mostly among politicians, administrators and teachers.
Groups of students -- dozens in some spots and hundreds in others -- walked out of classes Friday from several Chicago Public Schools buildings and rallied in front of the district’s headquarters. Protesters demanded immediate mitigation measures during the pandemic, and better treatment of minority communities.
“A lot of people are getting sick and a lot of people are dying,” said Alika Incosia-Stone, 16. “We came to protest to show that youth voices matter, we came to protect our families and students.”
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.
The Chicago Teachers Union pushed for more testing, masks and temporary remote learning to reduce the spread amid the omicron-driven surge.
Chicago Public Schools said in a statement that about 200 students demonstrated outside the organization’s headquarters. “CPS remains committed to fostering learning environments that allow students to respectfully deliberate issues with evidence and an open mind – and safely participate in civic action,” the district said in the statement.
Similar protests have been cropping up across the nation.
Students in Oakland, California, intend to walk out next week, and the school district is aware of a petition some students are circulating, according to a spokesman. In Boston, a high-school student has amassed more than 8,300 signatures for an online petition asking Governor Charlie Baker to allow remote learning again. They follow in the footsteps of dozens of students who demonstrated in the small Michigan town of Okemos and hundreds who walked out at Brooklyn Technical High School in New York on Tuesday with similar demands.
They are beginning to see results. New York City Mayor Eric Adams said Wednesday that he would meet with students involved in the protests there, and Thursday said he was considering a temporary remote option, a stark reversal of his stance to keep kids in the classroom.
Student voices have grown louder and actions more visible amid a Covid-19 surge driven by the omicron variant. They clash with the push by mayors, governors and President Joe Biden to keep schools open so parents can work and the nation’s economy can rebound.
“Forcing students to attend in-person learning simply isn’t safe,” Boston Latin School student William Hu said in his Change.org petition. “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.”
The student actions follow weeks or months of tension among teacher unions and city and state officials over demands for expanded testing, contact tracing, vaccination clinics and masks and a return to remote learning. The most heated disagreement among the large U.S. school districts flared in Chicago, where Lightfoot -- a target of students’ chants Friday -- has repeatedly argued that schools are safe for in-person learning and has favored class-by-class or school-by-school closures rather than system-wide shifts.
Despite calls for remote learning from teachers and now students, fewer schools are closing. During the week of Jan. 10, 4,179 were closed or teaching remotely, down from a peak of 5,462 the week prior, according to Burbio, a research firm that tracks closures.
Like many elected leaders, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has said safety is a top priority, but closures are a last resort.
“We are in a very stressful time all around,” Wu said during a press conference on Jan. 1O in response to a question about students’ concerns. “I know this is weighing so heavily on our school communities, especially our young people, and so I thank our students for their activism.”
Her district has no plans for blanket shutdowns.
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