Students Are Doing What Adults Won’t in the Fight Against Omicron

As the Omicron variant rages across the U.S., some students are expressing frustration and worry over being forced back into classrooms with minimal protections. But rather than wait around for fumbling adults, youth across the country are taking matters into their own hands: organizing strikes, participating in citywide walkouts, and laying out detailed proposals for how their wellbeing could be prioritized during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

On Wednesday, thousands of students in New York City walked out of class to protest conditions and demand temporarily shutting down schools. Students are also planning a walkout this Friday in Boston, where 4,500 people have already signed a petition calling for a remote learning option. In Oakland, California, over 1,000 students signed a districtwide petition threatening to boycott classes entirely until the school district meets its demands—which include KN95 masks, increased testing, and more outdoor space for students to safely eat lunch.

And in Chicago, where in-person classes have resumed after negotiation with the local teachers union, students announced a citywide walkout for this Friday at 12:30 p.m. to bring increased attention to their demands for “physical, mental, spiritual, and structural safety.”   

“We are tired of adult leadership not being able to represent the voice of the people that are affected by the shit that they're putting into place,” Santiago De La Garza, a 16-year-old junior at Solorio Academy in Chicago who plans to participate in the walkout, told Motherboard. Garza and several organizer-friends watched Omicron cases rise and, after having flashbacks to the nightmare that was last January, formed Chi-RADS, a radical youth alliance of largely queer Black and brown youth from a multitude of high schools and neighborhoods.  

“We came together on the basis of ‘we need to support ourselves and our peers because no one else is doing that,’” said Catlyn Savado, a 14-year-old freshman at a public school in Chicago’s South Side. “Every single thing that young people, specifically young Black and brown people, do is speculated, it is looked upon, it is policed… Only Chicago's youth is supporting Chicago's youth right now. While all of the adults are hollering and screaming at each other, we’ve been abandoned and stranded.”

Chi-RADS operates according to non-hierarchical principles, spans across the city, and, perhaps most importantly, its members have fun together.  “We laugh. We take brain breaks, we play Among Us,” said Garza. 

But the group is also serious about challenging existing power structures that, they told Motherboard, are prioritizing money over people’s lives.

Garza pointed out that students and their families received increased financial support from Chicago Public Schools, including EBT cards for groceries, while they were remote learning. “If we go back into remote learning that means refilling EBT cards, and that means offering supports that were there once when we were remote,” Garza said. “It all ties back to money. They do not care about what we want, they do not care about what's most beneficial. They do not care whose lives they're risking.”

In a letter of declaration addressed to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady and Chicago Public School Executive Pedro Martinez, Chi-RADS wrote that they “believe in the reimagination of our education” and want to ensure that “it is not just the condition of what learning should look like in the eyes of American capitalists.” They demanded the centering of marginalized student voices in all discussions related to COVID-19 safety plans and for officials to publicly apologize for negative statements it made about members of the Chicago Teachers Union. “In order to genuinely take into account the best interest of students, ask us directly or include us in the conversations,” they wrote. The letter also criticized adult leadership for being “incompetent” and manipulating COVID-19 data to fit their political agendas. 

On Jan. 10, Chi-RADS released a detailed proposal that includes COVID-19 relief stipends, the funding of mutual aid projects, providing every student with a personal laptop, and ensuring one full-time therapist for every 30 students, alongside implementing basic safety measures, such as N95 masks, rapid antigen tests, and an efficient contact tracing system. 

“There is no blanket plan that will work for every school and every student. To try to make one would deny some group, it’s inevitable,” Chi-RADS wrote. “The schools should have their own ability to create plans that work best for their environment and their students. Every school should have a peer pod task force that makes up members of the school body, including teachers, staff, students, parents, and administration to create the school’s specific Covid Response Plan.”  

“We've had DMs [direct messages] from people from Seattle, New York, different parts of California, from everywhere,” said Garza. “People are saying that they're reading our letter in their classrooms, and they're breaking it down. That is so empowering and so liberating to know that we haven't even been formed for that long, and we're really already making what feels like history right now.” 

Dora Chan, a 17-year-old student at Brooklyn Tech, was one of the students who helped organize the walkout on Tuesday. Chan told Motherboard she estimates around 400 students participated in total at her school, and said students from at least 28 other schools participated.

“The walk-out was successful beyond comprehension,” she wrote in an email. “We've garnered attention and support from every corner of the city, with hundreds of students walking out in a growing demand for schools to temporarily close, in light of the surge of COVID-19 cases.”

While their ultimate demand is for the city to temporarily close schools, Chan said the districts could compromise by offering remote options.

“Every day, students are forced to make a decision: Safety or education,” she wrote. “With no alternative schooling in place, students are forced to come into school, or they risk failing their classes. Though remote learning last year was a nightmare, the current situation warrants a temporary return to remote learning, but the school district and the city fail to understand this. The reality of being a student in NYC right now is incredibly bleak and dark.”

School administrators in Oakland and New York City were forced to respond quickly. 

OUSD communications director John Sasaki told local news outlet KRON that the district ordered enough KN95 masks for all students and would distribute them once they are delivered. Sasaki claimed supply-chain issues disallowed schools from constructing shaded structures for outdoor seating. 

In New York City, David Banks, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, tweeted that he would invite student leaders to meet with him so they can “work together for safe and open schools.” Chan said Banks has not yet responded to student organizers who have tweeted at him, and is skeptical about his tweet but is “looking forward to a response.”

Chi-RADS organizers echoed a similar skepticism toward adult engagement. “There's always power dynamics, there's always taking advantage, there's always tokenization,” said Savado. 

“I've been in conversations with adults, or with people in power and there's a lot of adultism, and ageism. They’ll ask you for your opinion, but they don't really believe anything you're saying,” said Andrea Cespedes, a junior at Lindblom Math and Science Academy in Chicago.

“And it's kind of like, dude, this is the community that I am a part of every single day. I know how it works. I know how these systems operate, and how they never favor young people. The system has been going on for hundreds of years, and nothing is getting better. We're still stuck in the same exact place. So obviously, something that they're doing is wrong. And they always fail to ask young people how we feel about it.”

While many students are demanding better COVID protections, some are using the opportunity to radically reimagine the education system—and demand learning that prioritizes student safety over profits and productivity.

“Why don’t we radically reimagine school? When they say we are ‘behind,’ we are ‘behind’ what? All of this stuff is made up,” said Judai Smith, a senior at Kenwood Academy in Chicago. “We could literally change education. What is the stuff that we really need? What is the stuff that is actually going to help us grow?”

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