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Student Protests over COVID Policy (and Adults Ignoring Them) is Part of a Long Tradition

The omicron variant of the coronavirus is causing serious challenges for public school administrators, but adult authorities seem divided over how to act. They face pressure from all sides, with some demanding they increase mitigation tactics to slow the spread of covid-19 or move to remote learning while others insist that they carry on as “normal.” In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) and Mayor Eric Adams (D) have defended continuing in-person teaching, with Adams calling schools “the safest place for our children.”

Some students disagree. A junior at Brooklyn Technical High School told the New York Post “we don’t feel safe at school” because of the health risks to students and their families during the omicron surge. Moreover, because of illness absences and teachers in isolation, in-person schooling has not been synonymous with learning. Some students have reported being shepherded into auditoriums to be supervised but not taught due to a lack of teachers. Students in several cities have staged protests, walkouts and strikes.

They join a long tradition of students speaking out and walking out of school to voice their concerns. Historically, students have used strikes and demonstrations to demand better and safer learning conditions in schools. Their message: Education needs to be delivered in cooperation with young people. They have a right to advocate for their own welfare, feel safe in school and receive teaching, not just supervision.

Almost a century ago, in the 1920s, students staged a wave of school strikes and demonstrations. During a time of infamous labor disputes including the strikes in Gastonia, N.C., Passaic, N.J., and New Bedford, Mass., children also organized, emulating the tactics of adult unions. Communists had long complained about public schools and particularly what they saw as overly religious and jingoistic curriculum. For Communist-minded youths in the 1920s, concerns were more immediate and concrete; many succeeded in encouraging their peers to strike over various safety and welfare issues.

In April 1924, a group of around 100 students staged a strike at a Chicago school. The move was a serious demonstration against what the children deemed overzealous corporal punishment that came in the shape of beatings and whippings. It was arranged by the Junior Section of the Young Workers League (JSYWL), a Communist Party affiliate for children 7 to 16. By focusing on a single issue, a small number of Communist-minded children garnered significant support from their classmates. A teacher was replaced as a result, but the Chicago Tribune dismissed the importance of the action and mocked the fact that several students had arrived at the picket line on roller skates.

Read entire article at Made By History at the Washington Post