The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Students are protesting covid policies — and the adults who won’t listen to them

For a century, student activists have demanded a say in their schools

Demonstrators hold signs and chant during a student walkout over coronavirus pandemic safety measures at Chicago Public Schools. (Cheney Orr/Bloomberg News)
Placeholder while article actions load

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.

Adults would regret not taking the JSYWL seriously. Over the next few years under a new name, the Young Pioneers of America (YPA), the group staged school strikes nationwide from New York to Los Angeles. Conservative adult organizations including the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution condemned the YPA and demanded that police use “physical force” to end children’s school demonstrations. Education officials dismissed using such force as “un-American.” But children wrote in to the periodical Young Comrade to insist that “the police can’t scare us.”

The YPA in New York held numerous protests concerning their school conditions. The city’s public school system was in something of a crisis due to aging infrastructure, budget limitations and huge increases in enrollment following World War I. The city’s decision to end a subsidized meals program in favor of a profiteering private concessions system infuriated many working-class children and parents who became very willing to support students striking from schools. Like striking students in 2022, these students of the 1920s felt that their welfare and safety was being disregarded in favor of economic factors and the convenience of adults in power.

In August 1925, students at P.S. 216 in the Bronx refused to attend school at the start of the new school year, citing the “traffic danger” of a busy road and demanding a crossing patrol be implemented. Their demands were met. Later, in February 1927, an entire class at one school refused to attend school until the heating in their classroom was fixed, complaining they were all suffering head colds.

That same year students at Brooklyn’s Thomas Jefferson High School staged a walkout, chanting their slogan, “More schools, less firetraps.” Over 1,000 students were enrolled at the school, which had only four exits. Further demands were printed in Young Comrade, including “a seat for every pupil,” “sanitary conditions” and “better ventilation.” Meanwhile students at P.S. 19 and P.S. 20 in Williamsburg went on strike with the support of their parents to protest overcrowding. In 1929, students at Brooklyn’s P.S. 109 held a mass meeting to protest their school’s damp basement lunchroom and the reopening of a previously condemned annex to ease overcrowding. The school called the police to report an unpermitted gathering, and New York Police Department Radical Bureau detectives detained several students, who were later released without charge.

In the aftermath of the First Red Scare, a period of widespread fear of far-left extremism following World War I, New York school authorities were keen to present a tough stance on anything deemed Communist. They frequently called the police to deal with protesting students and expelled students who led YPA activity.

YPA students won few concessions, but this hard line approach to even sensible demands helped them to sell Communism to their peers, and the organization boasted over 1,200 members in the Bronx and Brooklyn alone at its late 1920s peak.

What’s more, student protesters applied what they learned through the protests to later activism. Jessie Taft would go on to organize striking women in New York’s laundry industry and made headlines for chaining herself to a hotel balcony as part of a 1936 protest. Saul Wellman organized striking truckers on Long Island during the Depression before joining the Lincoln Brigade to fight fascism in Spain. In the 1950s, he organized striking auto-industry workers in Detroit as chair of the Michigan State Communist Party. The YPA’s most famous alumnus, Bronx orphan Harry Eisman, was elected as head of the International Children’s Congress in Moscow while he was held in a New York reformatory. He later earned an Order of the Red Star following Red Army service at the Battle of Stalingrad.

Eisman, Taft and Wellman first experienced protest organizing along with their fellow New York schoolchildren in the 1920s. Then, as now, the assurances of politicians and administrators that schools are safe places of learning did not wash with students, and young people were willing to risk punishment and walk out to force change. Then, as now, students organized to defy adult authorities who thought they could run schools by decree alone. Historically, we see that when students do not feel that administrators take their concerns seriously they will organize radical action groups and administrators will find that running schools without their consent is a very difficult thing to do.