It’s fitting that during the time of year we celebrate one of our country’s most heralded civil rights icons, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., students across the country are standing up as well — for their right to a safe education.

In walkouts nationwide on Friday, students advocated for safety in schools, as the omicron surge brought coronavirus cases to by far their highest point ever, even as school continues for most in person.

In Seattle on Friday, over 100 students protested outside the Seattle Public Schools headquarters in Sodo, chanting in call and response: “When our safety is under attack, what do we do? Fight back!” 

Signs at the rally spoke to the frustration many students expressed about what they felt was the lack of safety in school, with signs reading, “Thousands of cases districtwide. No remote classes. VALUE OUR LIVES,” “Is your $$$ worth our safety?” and “How are we supposed to learn if we’re sick?”

The past few weeks of school in the Seattle area have brought a dizzying array of school closures, reopenings, sickouts, student strikes and remote learning. The school disruptions have added stress to an already stressful time, as omicron’s stunning virulence continues to touch nearly everyone.

Student organizers at Friday’s Seattle rally had a list of demands, including more frequent transparency on the number of cases in schools, mental health support for students, redefining what is considered an “instructional day” to include remote learning, and distribution of N95 masks and testing throughout the district.

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Mia Dabney and Nya Spivey are two of the youth activists who organized Friday’s rally. Both Cleveland High School students, Dabney and Spivey said in interviews last week that with omicron spiking and their school being forced to close several times due to what the district said was “staffing and student attendance projections,” more needed to be done to keep students and staff safe.

Senior Dabney, 17, said it wasn’t just COVID safety that spurred students into action. Several threats that led to shelter-in-place incidents over several months also affected students’ sense of safety at school, along with what she said was a lack of mental health care after the incidents. 

“This should not be normal,” Dabney said of students facing the fear and anxiety caused by threats at school. “It makes people not want to be at school. Fear is what is controlling so much of the education system,” she said, “and that’s not what it should be. It should be enlightening people and giving them the excitement of learning, growing and being educated.”

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Spivey, 18, said it’s frustrating and hard to understand why school was remote last year when there were far fewer COVID cases but is now in person when the cases are at their highest. As a senior, Spivey said she already has enough on her plate with schoolwork, college selection and figuring out her future — all that while “worrying about whether or not going to school is even a safe option.”

Spivey also knows the stress of COVID firsthand. After spending hours in the freezing cold and rain to get COVID tests at a district testing site in early January, Spivey said everyone she lives with except her got COVID over the past couple of weeks. 

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In response to questions about the student demands, a Seattle Public Schools spokesperson said in an email, “Since the pandemic, the district has placed top priority on properly and thoroughly responding to sometimes rapidly evolving conditions, in order to continue to prioritize the health and safety of students and staff. This focus has been done every step of the way in partnership with and guidance from Public Health – Seattle & King County and the Washington Department of Health.”

In addition, the district said it requested half a million “enhanced masks” from the state for staff and that student masks “will hopefully be identified and provided soon.” They also said they have a “robust” testing program but that weekly testing is not possible without educators being willing to be test observers. 

No one doubts it’s an unimaginably challenging time for school districts, educators, staff and students. There is no perfect solution. Remote school has tremendous drawbacks, including serious equity concerns. In-person school has tremendous drawbacks, including serious safety concerns.

But one thing we should be able to agree on is that as this crisis continues, those who are closest to the problem — students — know the challenges all too well. They have some of the best solutions, and adults should be listening.

“There’s always been student activism,” Dabney said. “It’s just no one’s been listening. We’ve been fighting, we’ve always been searching for a place to have our voice be heard. This is our chance for us as youth to step up and be the voice. So let the youth speak their truth and let them be heard.”

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