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D.C. students walk out to protest ‘not safe’ school covid protocols

Students at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School stage a walkout Tuesday to protest what they see as lax safety measures in the fight to contain the coronavirus. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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Dozens of students from Benjamin Banneker Academic High School walked out Tuesday afternoon in a push for more coronavirus testing and virtual options in D.C. Public Schools. Students in smaller numbers from eight other schools staged similar protests.

The student demonstrators said that schools haven’t felt safe, especially during the surge in cases that began after Thanksgiving. Some schools in the system — which has an enrollment of roughly 49,000 — have shifted briefly to virtual learning during outbreaks, but officials have remained steadfast that the district at large remain in-person.

The students outside Banneker on Tuesday were critical of how the plan has rolled out this academic year. Brianna Stallings, a lead organizer in the demonstration, said her school wasn’t being transparent about how many people at Banneker have contracted covid-19. Schools in D.C. post their case counts, but community members have pointed to evidence that the reports lag far behind the actual infections and tests. The D.C. Council passed emergency legislation last week that requires public schools to notify parents within 24 hours if their child’s classroom has a positive coronavirus case.

Stallings became especially concerned after winter break, and she talked with some friends and decided to start organizing. “Our principal has said from Day 1 to be proactive instead of reactive,” said Stallings, a senior at Banneker. “We believe that DCPS is being reactive to the covid situation instead of proactively trying to protect our students.”

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While the protest was led by students, Stallings said that the action was done “not only for ourselves but for our teachers, for our administration who are in as much danger as we are.”

“It’s hard sometimes to be in a building that you don’t feel safe in at the end of the day,” said Stalling, 18. “It’s a lot. It takes a big toll on you, worrying about your family and friends.”

D.C. Public Schools declined to comment.

The students, under the group name Students for Safe Learning, are pushing for D.C. Public Schools to test all of its population each week. They’re also requesting the district provide KN95 or N95 masks to everyone in the schools, among other demands.

D.C. Public Schools conducts weekly rapid antigen tests, and it’s required by the D.C. Council to test 20 percent of its students each week. The district, though, has struggled to meet that threshold. The school system also has provided KN95 masks to staff members after winter break, and it offers disposable surgical masks to others.

LaKiyra Williams, another Banneker senior, walked out with a group of friends at 12:45 p.m. Williams pointed to reporting done by student journalists at the Wilson Beacon, Wilson High School’s student newspaper, on how the school community was receiving delayed notifications for coronavirus cases. (D.C. Public Schools has since said that it would speed up its notification process.) Some of Williams’s friends at different D.C. public schools similarly have felt unsafe, especially during lunch periods when many students are in the same location and have to take their masks off to eat, she said.

“It’s just not safe,” said Williams, 18. “It shouldn’t even have to be explained or have to tell you that this is not right, especially because you can turn on the news and you would know.”

Other youth activists in the city came Tuesday in support. Lyric Johnson, 18, and Dulane McGill, 18, handed out rapid tests and KN95 masks to students as they emerged from school.

“We know how when students aren’t being heard, how frustrating it is,” Johnson said.

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Students from eight other schools in the District also signed up to participate in the event, Stallings said, though Banneker had the largest turnout. (The other schools were Dunbar High School, Woodrow Wilson High, Ron Brown High, Phelps ACE High, School Without Walls, Eastern High, Duke Ellington School of the Arts and Bard High School Early College DC.) Stallings said that since finals were scheduled for Tuesday, many students were nervous about participating and instead would be coming to a virtual rally scheduled later Tuesday afternoon.

The action Tuesday was the latest in a string of student activism across the region. In suburban Maryland, students at Montgomery County Public Schools organized a walkout Friday to demand a pivot to virtual instruction. Other students across the country have taken similar action in recent weeks during a surge of coronavirus cases.

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