Originally published Jan. 10, 2022, 8:04 p.m. EST
Dora Chan hasn’t been to her school for more than a week. A senior at Brooklyn Technical, one of the largest high schools in the country, she worries about getting sick with COVID and bringing the virus home to her grandparents, who live with her.
Now Chan has joined students from across the city calling on their peers to walk out of class Tuesday afternoon to demand a remote option as a surge in infections has caused increased student and staff absences.
More students and staff have tested positive over the past few weeks than the entire school year, sending schools scrambling to find substitutes to cover for sick staff and scaring many parents about sending their children to class. On Monday alone, almost 13,000 students and more than 2,200 staffers reported testing positive. Attendance has cratered recently: more than a quarter-million of the city’s 938,000 public school students were absent one or more days last week.
But newly sworn-in Mayor Eric Adams and schools chancellor David Banks remain committed to keeping schools open. Officials insist that classrooms remain safe, and that families rely on schools for meals and childcare, as well as education. Attendance increased Monday with almost 76% of students present (although average attendance is typically in the 90% range.) And while many educators and families are pressing for campus closures, some public health experts believe that closures aren’t likely to stop the spread of the highly transmissible omicron.
Students have organized on social media to urge their peers to join the protest Tuesday — though some have expressed reservations about returning to remote learning, the safety of hosting a large protest, and the impact of the expected freezing temperatures.
Chalkbeat spoke with Chan about what’s motivating her and other students to call for school closures. Here are her responses, which have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Tell me how your high school experience has been last year and this year.
For most of the last two years, I was doing remote learning. It was tough. I totally get it when I got DMs (direct messages on social media) saying that, ‘I do not want to go to remote instruction.’ Because I know how tough it was. For me, personally, I just realized that we have to put the public safety first, above that. That’s our utmost priority right now because of how many cases we have…
So focusing more currently, after winter break, I actually stopped going to school because I live with my grandparents who are at risk and I don’t want to risk it. Brooklyn Tech has 6,000 students. It really is a gamble when I walk in there. It’s almost, like, certain that some people will be sick, and I hope it’s not me. And that’s what I have to deal with…
I alerted my teacher, my gym teacher, that I couldn’t go to school anymore because of this. And you know, gym is such a physical class that if I don’t go, I risk failing. So, my teacher obviously understood my concerns. She felt for me. But at the same time, because of the policies in place, she couldn’t help. She just told me the situation as it is: If I don’t go, I might fail. And as a senior, I have to graduate…
I think a lot of seniors – not just seniors but every student – are making these decisions.
Why are you planning a walkout, and not some other form of protest?
I think a walkout is the best way to show the unity of the students. Because we’re all at school. We’re all trapped in this area, and we’re gambling with our lives. And so in response to that we’re showing the school and the city: We’re not going to deal with this anymore. And if we walk out and that’s symbolic in the sense that: We’re sick of this, and need a change.
Why do you think a walkout is necessary and what exactly are your goals?
The main goal is to grab the attention of the mayor. And to get there, we hope that the press can circulate the story and provide us a platform to talk about what we want from the mayor.
The ultimate goal is to shut down schools temporarily, to get the cases under control.
We also brainstormed alternative goals, knowing that he’s adamant about keeping a school open. Alternative goals that we thought of are planning remote options, blended learning. We did that last year; we can do it again this year. More frequent and diversified COVID testing for students and the staff, both vaccinated and unvaccinated – so everyone.
And finally, we hope that the [Department of Education] health screening is improved. The DOE health screening is kind of just this way to filter out people who have COVID from going to school… but there are cases where you’re exposed to people who have COVID or you live with people who are at risk. And all these little circumstances are not accounted for currently in DOE’s health screening.
In comments on social media, some of your peers don’t seem to be on board with the protest for a variety of reasons. What are students concerned about, and what would you say to those who are skeptical?
The number one reason people think this might not work is because they just don’t think the city cares for this one specific school. We’re one school in this entire system, and the mayor probably might not care that we are protesting and walking out and sending emails and letters. And to that, I want my peers to know that it all starts somewhere. I do think that because of how concerning this issue is and how pressing the matter is, we will come together as a school community. But also the press will help us. Instagram will help us. And through that, I think we will get to the mayor eventually.
What’s your sense of what it’s like in school right now?
For my peers who are in school, none of them wants to be there. They are forced to be there for any reason, mostly because there is no alternative. Either they go to school or they risk failing their classes. And, for a lot of them, they don’t have the privilege to fail their classes.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.