When Ayleen Serrano returned to school after the recent winter break, the 15-year-old came back to nearly empty hallways, absent classmates, and what she describes as a “lifeless” atmosphere. As the days passed, fewer of her peers showed up at MetWest High School in Oakland, California; her teachers and classmates were testing positive for Covid-19, or had been exposed and were waiting for tests, or simply feared for their safety.
Serrano and her friends decided that if the school wasn’t going to take steps to make them feel safer coming to school, like providing regular tests for all students, they would have to demand those measures themselves. Serrano and her classmates Ximena Santana, 15, and Benjamin Rendon, 15, decided to start a petition on Google docs. Maybe, said Rendon, they would get “a couple of students” to sign it. They did better than that. The petition drew so much attention, it became a story on the local TV news. Rendon recalls: “I went to watch it when they aired it, and I was like, ‘Damn.’”
In Oakland and around the US, millions of students returned to classrooms amid the surge of the highly contagious Omicron variant. The majority of schools pressed on with in-person learning even as a record-breaking number of Covid cases ripped through the country. Chicago Public Schools canceled classes for five days during a standoff with the teachers union before reaching an agreement to restart in-person schooling. Parents with school-aged kids fretted about not being able to go to work if schools remained closed, but they also worried about kids getting infected in schools, especially as their youngest remain unable to be vaccinated.
Many students, meanwhile, felt left out of the conversation. “I feel like my school had failed me,” says Jaiden Briese, a 15-year-old sophomore at Denver Public Schools in Colorado. Since returning to school after winter break, he was wary of the crowded hallways between periods and the classmates who were less careful about wearing masks. (When I spoke to him, Briese was home from school, recovering from Covid.)
His frustrations are shared by his 15-year-old classmate Haven Coleman. A seasoned organizer for climate action, Coleman was already thinking about ways to get the district’s attention when the semester began. As she scrolled through social media, she noticed other student actions starting to take place—including the petition that Serrano, Santana, and Rendon started a thousand miles away in Oakland.
Coleman texted Briese. They texted other classmates about the idea of a petition; soon, word spread to students from another Denver high school. Days later, a student-led petition demanding safer conditions at Denver Public Schools joined the chorus of similar actions from students in Boston, Chicago, New York City, and Oakland.
“You Need to Listen to Us”
Student protesters who spoke with WIRED described how they reached out to peers using text messages and social media apps to help shape their demands of their school districts.
A protest in New York started as a late-night text. Cruz Warshaw, a junior at Stuyvesant High School, pitched the idea to her friends Rifah Saba and Samantha Farrow, also juniors: Do you want to stage a walkout to make the mayor close the schools?
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In the days leading up to the walkout, they claimed social media handles for the action and used the free graphic design tool Canva to create a shareable infographic they posted to the Instagram account they created, @nycstudentwalkout2022. The organizers engaged with comments on the post and Instagram DMs to actively seek input from other students outside their own school.
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“Social movements are really informed by the technology of their time,” says Antwi Akom, a distinguished professor and founding director at the Social Innovation and Urban Opportunity Lab, a joint research program between the University of California, San Francisco and San Francisco State University. Akom also cofounded Streetwyze, an app that community members can use to document data in their own neighborhoods to hold official institutional data to account.
Akom, who works with Oakland students but isn’t affiliated with the recent petition, highlights the youths’ use of social media to democratize the flow of information. “Young people have been locked out and left out of these conversations,” he says. “The power of social media and hashtags has increased the ability for people in general, and young people in particular, to flip the script, to enact resistance and agency to be included.”
The student-led walkouts and petitions across the country have asked district leaders for broadly similar measures to safeguard students’ health, with demands like the provision of KN95 or N95 masks, regular testing, and safe outdoor spaces to eat lunch.
Notably, many of the student actions have called for a temporary return to remote learning or the creation of alternative options for students who want to learn remotely. “It’s time to go virtual until this surge is over,” reads a Change.org petition in Howard County, Maryland. “We demand [the Oakland Unified School District] to shift from in-person learning to online learning,” the Oakland petition reads, “UNLESS YOU Make It Safe.” In New York, student walkout organizers demanded a temporary return to remote learning during the Covid surge, in addition to a hybrid option for students with families who can’t provide child care.
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Remote learning has been fiercely debated since the start of the pandemic. On one hand, the disastrous, slapdash virtual learning programs enacted in March 2020 have widened equity gaps that persist to this day, particularly for children of families with unstable access to housing, broadband internet, and child care. On the other hand, a lack of remote-schooling options has spurred fear and protest in cities like New York, where the district’s decision to ditch virtual learning prompted some parent boycotts.
Adults on the board of education seemed to assume that all students wanted in-person learning, said the student who authored the petition in Maryland’s Howard County. (The 17-year-old asked to remain anonymous because of backlash he’s received in the past from adults in his community.) But the conversations, texts, and DMs he shared with classmates reflected a different reality: Though his peers have mixed feelings about returning to remote learning, there was a consensus that the school system wasn’t doing enough to protect them in classrooms, either.
“You need to listen to us, because we’re the ones who are experiencing it,” says Briese, the Denver student organizer. “We’re the ones affected by it.”
“Spam Everyone You Know”
When the time came to publicize their petition, the student organizers in Oakland started with the most intuitive course of action: They found their classmate with the most Instagram followers and asked him to share it. This student, who had built up a robust following using Instagram to sell shoes and collectibles, agreed.
Because the Google doc used to make the petition had initially been shared between classmates, they had left edit permissions open. When the petition unexpectedly started getting shared widely, inappropriate edits from trolls poured in like internet sewage. On a panicked Friday night, the students saved the doc and tightened edit permissions.
In New York, word of the walkout leapt from phone to phone, across Snapchat and Instagram stories and Twitter posts. It also found other student organizers at Brooklyn Tech who wanted to help. On the night before the walkout, the organizers hosted a Q&A on Instagram Stories, inviting students from across New York to ask last-minute questions. And on January 11, what began as a plan sketched out in text messages hit the streets when thousands of students across New York City public schools walked out of their school buildings.
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The student-led protests are more than a call for masks and tests. Students repeatedly emphasized that they are organizing out of exhaustion and frustration. “This isn’t fun for anyone,” says Saba, the student from New York, pointing out all of the hard work it takes to organize a walkout while still going to class and doing homework assignments. “We’re just tired of being ignored.”
At the time of publication, the petition for Denver students had nearly 500 signatures. On January 12, a day after the New York walkout, the NYC student walkout account tweeted that representatives from the chancellor’s office have reached out to schedule a meeting with them.
The student protesters in Oakland had given the district a deadline of Monday, January 17, threatening a student strike on the 18th if their demands are not met. In a statement released to KRON4, the Oakland school district’s communications director wrote that the school had ordered KN95 and N95 masks for students, as well as supplies for covered eating spaces. “We are already meeting, or are in the process of meeting, most of the demands noted in this petition,” the statement reads. “And we will continue to work towards fulfilling the rest in the coming weeks.”
The Oakland student organizers said they have received emails from students in other San Francisco Bay Area cities like San Leandro and San Jose, as well as districts in Texas and Florida. The students said they saw the petition online and wanted to ask for help in planning actions of their own.
Late last week, students in Round Rock Independent School District in Texas announced their own petition as well as plans to walk out if their safety demands were not met. At the time of publication, the petition had 1,200 signatures. A news release from the students, obtained by Spectrum News 1, reads: "We began the petition in response to the actions taken by students of Oakland Unified School District as well as the inaction in our own district regarding Covid safety protocols.” Their Google doc, by the way, is troll-proofed—students can only sign via a Google form.
Update, January 21 at 1:15 pm: This story was updated to correct the names of the academic institutions affiliated with the Social Innovation and Urban Opportunity Lab.
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