Op-Ed: Standing up and walking out: Why students are questioning leadership and safety in schools 

By Natalie Soutonglang, Contributor

Students gather outside the school before heading downtown to the all-city demonstration.

On January 3, the first day back after winter break, I logged into my first-period class via Google Meet. I was greeted by faceless Google icons and a wave of deja-vu, having experienced the exact same conditions only a year ago. As the day went on, I never seemed to be alone in the virtual space. Both teachers and students utilized the remote option until the announcement was released: CPS Classes Canceled Wednesday After Chicago Teachers Union Votes to Refuse In-Person Schooling. With 5,700 students across the district in quarantine, 400 positive tests on that Monday alone, and a district-wide vaccination rate of a little over 50% for students over 12, it was no surprise teachers were taking action. 

In the midst of a pandemic, Payton boasts a seemingly impossible statistic: there have been 0 reported cases of transmission within the school. Credited to high vaccination rates (80% of students and 98% of staff), the mask mandate, and social distancing procedures, Payton is a perfect example of Mayor Lightfoot’s claim to the safety of schools. So why did students participate in a district-wide walkout for increased safety procedures? 

As a current senior and a product of the Chicago Public School system, my earliest memory of CTU’s labor actions goes back a decade to 2012. Three appointed CEOs and two CTU presidents later, student voices continue to be weaponized, claiming to represent our best interests. In a district with over 300,000 students, 90% of which are people of color, and 60% are eligible for free or reduced lunch, representing the needs of CPS students means representing the most silenced communities within our society. 

Intersecting with Chicago’s history of segregation and redlining, the issues in many CPS neighborhoods are derived from the lasting impact of these historical policies. At home, students are confronted with serious issues such as over-policing, food insecurity, and additional responsibilities to support our families. Simultaneously, school has become a place where academic excellence is measured in numbers and our humanity is erased. Despite the growing need to not only address, but reimagine the role of schools in rectifying the issues within our city, students have little to no agency over how schools can cater to our physical, mental, and emotional needs. The weight of decisions from CPS’s CEO and administrators are felt by students, but we are never considered a stakeholder in these conversations. Instead, students must ask themselves this question: who are our leaders serving? 

The reason why Payton students chose to walk out of school last week extends far beyond conversations of COVID safety protocols. It’s not a conversation about remote learning versus in-person learning, because reimagining safety means diverging from that binary. Addressing the need to socialize with our peers, while also feeling safe, while also having access to free WIFI, while also having a quiet place to learn are all demands that can coexist. 

Additionally, student voice challenges claims that schools, like Payton, are serving students’ best interest in terms of safety–an example of this is in current contact-tracing practices. Despite a student-created contact tracing spreadsheet from the senior class prior to winter break, Payton still officially denies student-to-student transmission. 

Payton’s individual statistics regarding COVID cases can be interpreted in a plethora of ways, but the potential impact of movements like the walkout would mean improving conditions for our classmates across the city–not just at Payton. By standing in solidarity and showing up for our community, students have the power to redefine education as a system and work to meet the needs of every individual student. Schools cannot function without students, and by acknowledging our needs and collectively fighting to support one another, we can gain agency over our futures.

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