The magic minute for high school students around the city and in Dorchester last Friday was at 10:30 a.m. when they staged a massive citywide ‘walk-out’ to draw attention to the lack of pandemic safety measures in their schools – pointing particularly at Gov. Baker and his Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) as being tone-deaf in the moment.
At the Henderson K-12 on Croftland Avenue in Dorchester, School Committee Student Rep Xyra Mercer – a senior at the school – said they hoped to be taken seriously and heard.
“We hope this walk-out will make the governor and DESE do something and not say it was just a bunch of kids, as he has called us before,” said Mercer, in front of the Henderson. “A lot of people in the Commonwealth who are adults are also pushing for this, such as teachers and staff and state representatives.”
The walk-out went well beyond the Henderson, where about 75 to 80 kids left their classrooms with a plan to seek a place to participate in the event online. At Roxbury Crossing, where the Madison Park and the John D. O’Bryant high schools are located, hundreds if not thousands of kids – many from Dorchester and Mattapan – poured out of the two schools that morning. Three news helicopters hovered overhead, and news crews were gathered to catch the action there.
At the Henderson, many of students said they were “kind of worried” about the lack of precautions in the school, particularly in the cafeteria.
Mercer said the overall effort was aimed at getting N95 masks provided to students and teachers, having a two-week cooling period online to stop the current spread, and making sure the lunchroom/cafeteria was Covid safe and friendly.
Mercer said a big concern for many kids throughout Boston Public Schools (BPS) whom she has spoken with is the extended family situations. She said that while she is worried about Covid for herself, she and others are more concerned about their relatives. In her case, she lives with older grandparents and a cousin who has severe asthma. If she were to bring home the virus to them from school, she said she would be devastated – a sentiment shared by many other students in the district.
“At this point I’d much rather focus on my education than this, but you have to think about the other people you live with, too,” she said. “I have to make sure they are okay, too, when I come home.”
One of the more controversial pieces within the student body, the school communities, teachers, and elected officials is the call for a two-week online school period. Many are asking, said Mercer, “that these two weeks online be put in place to help stop the spread of Covid-19 and that they be counted as official days by the state,” she said. “None of us want it to spread further than it has.”
She added that students do not want to have the online session last more than two weeks.
“If we don’t do the two weeks now, we probably won’t have a senior graduation and be able to take pictures with our families,” she said. “We’ll have to have another drive-thru. We don’t want that again and we don’t want to close out the year on Zoom. We want school to be safe and it starts now with these two weeks.”
Tiffany Luo, a senior at Boston Latin School, advocated for a major push by the district, parents, and students to get more kids enrolled in pool testing at the schools.
Mary Dibinga, a teacher at Boston Latin Academy (BLA), said the situation inside the classrooms is much different than what is portrayed to the public in terms of Covid safety.
“I’m seeing a reality in my classroom and with my students every day that is a reality not being reflected in the media or by…BPS,” she said. “I don’t know how you can learn under this stress, and I don’t know how we can teach under this stress.”
BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius sent out a letter on Monday addressing the Friday event. “As you might have seen on Friday, a group of BPS students organized a walk-out,” she wrote. “I believe in students activating their voice for change and in helping them advocate for the issues that matter to them. I met with a group of students last week as part of my ongoing conversations with student leaders and encouraged them to work with their school leaders to share their concerns about health and safety protocols in our schools.”
Cassellius has recommended that students who participated be given an excused absence if they returned to class, and if they stayed in class but participated in the protest, they be marked “constructively present.”