Students at Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School and Brooklyn Technical High School staged a walkout on Tuesday morning to demand online learning options and safer classrooms as COVID-19 cases continue to spread across the city.
“[The] NYCDOE cited a district-wide absentee rate of about 55.5% on Friday, Jan. 7.” said Movement of Rank and Educators, United Federation of Teachers (MORE-UFT), a teacher’s caucus in a statement Jan. 10. Prior to the pandemic, normal daily attendance rates were about 91%.
Protesting for school COVID safety, students demanded that NYC public officials – including Mayor Eric Adams and his administration – offer what they believe are necessary remote learning options and immediate COVID health protocols.
Coordinated by three Stuyvesant High School juniors who were uncomfortable with the lack of virtual options offered to students amidst the rise of the Omicron variant, Rifah Saba, 17, Samantha Farrow, 16, and Cruz Warshaw, 16, created social media accounts on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter to organize the citywide walkout.
After uploading their first post on Thursday night promoting a walkout, they realized they were not receiving positive feedback from their fellow classmates until students from Brooklyn Technical High School reached out to them and helped spread the news — igniting a spark of advocacy throughout the five boroughs.
Warshaw complained for weeks to family members regarding Mayor Eric Adams decision to keep schools open following the winter break, despite the rising number of COVID-19 positivity cases among students and teachers. After talking with her mother about staging a walkout in her school, she teamed up with her classmates Saba and Farrow.
“When Cruz had asked me to be a part of this, my dad had COVID, but I was still forced to come to school,” said Saba. “I thought that was ridiculous because I could be asymptomatic and infect other people. So I got involved.”
Farrow’s brother also caught COVID-19, and she was forced to attend classes. While she has noted some teachers quietly offered their support, she thinks that the school administration did not allow faculty to openly share their opinions. Additionally, some fellow students were simply indifferent about the cause.
“I felt really hopeless at the time because we are the people who have to go to school and risk catching COVID-19 and bring it back to our families. We don’t have a say as to whether we could go back to school or if we had other options,” Farrow said.
The walkout took place simultaneously at Stuyvesant High School and Brooklyn Technical High School at 11:52 a.m. on Jan. 11, while also igniting the participation of several other schools throughout the city. Many of the participating schools permitted the walkout but required permission slips from parents or legal guardians.
As they marched into the blistering cold, various students spoke to amNewYork Metro regarding their grievances.
“I personally live with four high risk individuals myself,” said Brooklyn Tech sophomore Joyce Lee. “Every time I go to school I risk not only my life, but their lives as well.”
Mayor Adams has repeatedly reiterated his belief that schools are “safer for children” than their homes during this current surge in the pandemic, going as far as to say in a press conference Dec. 28 than 1% of students were testing positive at schools, while 15% of those at home were testing positive. However, many parents and educators believe this to be inaccurate data.
NYC public schools reported record numbers of student absences within the past two weeks since schools reopened following the winter break. According to MORE-UFT, research from as recently as Jan. 9 indicates that in NYC 1 in 5 staff and 1 in 14 students have tested positive for COVID since September 13, 2021.
“There have been more than 10,000 positive test results for each of the 5 school days last week.” said MORE-UFT in response to Mayor Adams’s claims on Jan. 10. “Yet, the total number of tests administered at schools was never higher than 13,220 on any given day. With 1,022,237 students and school staff (including educators), this means that medical teams administered PCR tests to no more than about 1.3% of enrolled students and school staff on payroll on any given day.”
For Zhihan Yao, 14, the walk out wasn’t just about advocating for himself, it was about taking a stand for his parents and grandparents who have preexisting medical conditions that make them very susceptible to COVID-19.
“I want to stay safe, and I wish that Eric Adams and the NYC DOE would actually introduce a blended program safe for everyone,” Yao said, adding that he felt more comfortable attending classes virtually.
President Michael Mulgrew of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), one of the largest teacher’s unions in the city, also disputed the mayor’s claims of a 1% positivity rate during a press conference Jan. 3.
“We do not know the percentage, we do not know,” said Mulgrew. “Right before the break the teachers heard every day how the situation room was working, and every teacher in New York City knew that was not true. Now, we try to work with this new administration and we will see what happens over the next couple of weeks.”
But opposing caucuses believe that Mulgrew is being complicit with the Adams administration in not implementing or advocating more strongly for safer learning options.
“We all believe in a democratic system that Mulgrew – even though he is the union president – is not following,” said Luli Rodríguez, a special education teacher from East Harlem and member of United for Change – another oppositional caucus, on Jan. 4. “The Department of Education has their agenda, and we have our union leader who does not oppose these things. He’s really not supporting the teachers and he is really not supporting the families. By not testing everyone, how can you have an accurate number of transmissions?”
The NYC Department of Education (DOE) issued a statement via email Jan. 12 in response to the student walkout;
“We understand the concerns of our school communities during this crisis and wholeheartedly support civic engagement among New York City students. Nothing is more important than the health and safety of our school communities, and we’ve doubled in-school testing and deployed 5 million rapid tests to quickly identify cases, stop transmission, and safely keep schools open. Student voice is key and we’ll continue to listen to and work closely with those most impacted by our decisions — our students.”
The DOE also stated that NYC Chancellor of Education David Banks was planning a meeting with student leaders of the walkout to further discuss concerns and ideas with him.
This story was last updated Jan. 12, 2022 at 9:13 am