Hundreds of students across the city walked out of class Friday morning to urge the state to allow remote learning options and provide stronger COVID-19 safety measures in public schools.
At the end of a second week in which the city’s schools reported hundreds of students and teachers infected with COVID and struggled to maintain adequate staffing, students said they wanted the option to learn remotely.
“It’s not fair that we don’t have a choice,” said Yaricelis Genao, a 15-year-old Boston Latin Academy freshman who participated in the walkout. She said she has contracted COVID-19 twice, and both times fell behind because of prolonged absences from in-person learning.
Students in some of the nation’s largest school districts have also organized similar walkouts this week. Hundreds of students left classes in New York on Tuesday; Chicago Public Schools students held a similar walkout Friday afternoon.
As the highly contagious Omicron variant has fueled record case numbers, straining hospitals and pushing school staffing levels to the breaking point, teachers’ unions and officials across the country have tussled over the possibility of returning to remote learning. In Massachusetts, testing kit delays and delivery of nonmedical masks to educators have added more fuel to the fire.
Governor Charlie Baker has taken a hard line against a return to remote, saying in-person school remains the safest place for students. His administration has not allowed districts to move instruction online except in limited circumstances with state approval. Mayor Michelle Wu has called on the state to be more flexible in offering options for individual schools that are particularly hard-hit, but she’s also called remote learning “a last resort.”
But student leaders in Boston say public officials don’t understand how they feel.
“They’re not the ones in those schools everyday‚” said Tiffany Luo, the Boston Student Advisory Council’s Boston Latin School representative. “We’re the ones in classrooms and eating lunch with hundreds of other kids every day.”
BPS said in a statement that they support students’ efforts to voice their concerns to the district.
“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,” the statement said. The district said about 600 students from 11 schools participated in the walkout; some went home and others returned to class when it was over.
In a statement, Mayor Michelle Wu thanked the students organizers for voicing their concerns and offering solutions.
“Our number one goal is to ensure our students, educators, staff and community members are safe in school,” she said.
In a letter to public officials, the Boston Student Advisory Council demanded remote learning for two weeks, proper personal protective equipment for teachers, proper COVID testing for students and teachers, excused absences, and canceled testing, among other measures.
“All across the city and state of Massachusetts students, teachers and staff are feeling vulnerable in their own schools,” the council said in the letter. “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.”
The council described teachers receiving “expired home testing kits and two non-medical KN95 masks instead of the 30 that they were promised”; “half-empty” schools because of a surge in COVID cases; and crowded lunchrooms and small classrooms that don’t allow for social distancing.
Organizers also called on participants to text, e-mail, or call state, local, and school department officials to push for improvements in safety protocols and the opportunity to learn remotely.
“We need the district, the Mayor, the Education Commission and the Government to do something now!” protest organizers said in the letter.
An hour after the walkout, student leaders held a Zoom webinar to voice concerns about the spread of COVID in schools. Participants who attended could only hear the faint hum of music as people made calls, e-mails, and texts to officials requesting COVID changes. The webinar had nearly 400 participants by noon. Students, parents, and school nurses shared their frustrations about the lack of collaboration from city and state officials, as well as the risks of in-person learning.
“It always amazes me that with all the resources in this city and that BPS and the City of Boston hasn’t taken more initiative to be a leader on COVID,” added Jonathan Haines, a McKinley Middle School nurse. “To make the school system the shining example for everybody else.”
The walkout comes as Massachusetts is experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases, spurred by the highly contagious Omicron variant.
State health officials on Thursday reported 18,721 new confirmed cases, 3,180 patients in the hospital with the virus, and 36 confirmed deaths. The seven-day average test positivity rate was more than 20 percent.
Wu said at a press conference on Thursday that BPS recorded 1,200 staff absences a few days ago, with some schools seeing up to 40 percent of their staff out.
The total case numbers reported in public schools, however, dropped a bit last week; data released Thursday put the total at 48,414, a five percent drop from last week. BPS reported 1,247 student cases and 461 among staff between Jan. 5 and Jan. 12.
At a news conference on Thursday, Wu said she didn’t think the COVID-19 staffing shortage meant the city’s entire public school system needed to switch to remote learning, but she left open the possibility that individual schools might have to.
“Closing our schools and moving to remote is a last resort,” she said. “But it is one that we are prepared for, given that there are COVID and pandemic challenges that affect staffing beyond our control.”
Schools had reserves of Chromebook computers they were making available to students who had tested positive and needed to stay home, Wu said.
In a statement Friday, US Representative Ayanna Pressley said she stood in solidarity with the student protesters.
“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,” Pressley said.
James Vaznis and Martin Finucane of the Globe staff and Globe correspondents Grace Gilson and Rose Pecci contributed to this report.
Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @tianarochon. Sahar Fatima can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow her on Twitter @sahar_fatima.