by Ari Robin McKenna, photos by Chloe Collyer
Recently, in Mx. Sam Cristol’s ethnic studies class at Cleveland STEM High School, students were discussing the effects of COVID-19 in Seattle. “We started with the idea of all of us being frustrated with the way that these issues are being handled — and not handled, for that matter,” said student organizer Nya Spivey, “and then we were like, well … what as students can we do?” Spivey and classmates Mia Dabney and Ava May decided they could do something, and so they did.
The three co-organizers planned to walk out of their high school and march to Seattle Public Schools’ (SPS) headquarters in SoDo, the John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence (JSCEE), where they would hold a rally with different speakers. They reached out to people from Franklin High School, Rainier Beach High School (RBHS), and other high schools in the area, tapping their network of connections for help sourcing student and adult speakers; finding tables and a podium; and purchasing pizza, snacks, and water for their protesting peers. Word spread of the planned walkout, and Bob Barnes reached out to offer the services of Rise Up! Productions — a company that prioritizes supporting youth activism — to amplify the voices of those speaking.
On Friday, Jan. 14, at 11 a.m., students from Cleveland STEM High School, Franklin High School, and RBHS were joined by students from at least 10 other area schools, including Chief Sealth International High School, Nova High School, Lincoln High School, Ballard High School, Nathan Hale High School, Asa Mercer International Middle School, and Foster Senior High School in Tukwila. More than a hundred students gathered on the lawn at the northwest corner of JSCEE and protested for two and half hours.
The students listed their demands as follows:
- The district must be transparent about how many COVID-19 cases we have and how many it will take for schools to either be shut down or go remote.
- The district must fund mental health resources for students, staff, and community.
- We need to change what is defined as an instructional day, so that we can have an education and be safe.
- The district must provide immediate and open spaces for students and educators after harmful incidences.
- We want a meeting with Gov. Jay Inslee where the youth can speak our truth to him and tell him really what is happening in the schools.
In addition to lining up more than a half dozen impactful student speakers, co-organizers planned a mid-walkout food break for their peers and opened up the mic to others willing to speak off the cuff, such as Saturn, a junior from RBHS and a student poet with verse fit for the moment.
Some of the adults who spoke at the rally were Nikkita Oliver, an attorney, educator, politician, and the executive director of Creative Justice; Stephanie Gallardo, an ex-educator and politician with recent experience substitute teaching at local schools; Mx. Isaura Jimenez, a Cleveland STEM humanities teacher and South End community member; and Alvin Muragori, a community organizer for Councilmember Kshama Sawant. Board President Brandon Hersey, Board Vice President Chandra Hampson, and SPS Superintendent Brent Jones were also present among the attendees to listen.
The Emerald caught up with students from five different schools around Seattle who chose to join the walkout on Friday. Students spoke on why they had walked out and how they were feeling about school these days. The Emerald also included highlights from some of the students’ speeches and reflections from the event organizers below.
Voices From the Walkout Crowd
“It’s [school right now] definitely really stressful. It’s very stressful. There’s too many things happening, and I don’t know how to handle it all the time, so a lot of the time I just pretend everything is fine when it’s not, which is why I’m here, because I think things need to change … I agree with all the demands. One of the things that really stood out to me was the mental health one. At Lincoln, we have one therapist for the entire school in the Teen Health Center. Her waitlist is over three months long, and so I think we need to get more therapists at Lincoln. They need to sign some grants or do something that will help students’ mental health. One person handling everyone’s mental health problems is not enough.”—ALICIA
“We’re here just to amplify the demands of the youth organizers, primarily because in the South End, a lot of the schools have been shut down. What affects one school affects all the schools. We’re here in solidarity with them … We have at our school a Teen Health Center — but I know a lot of South End schools do not.”—CHETAN
“I really do feel strongly about our safety with COVID right now … It’s really kind of chaotic. Even though there’s supposed to be social distancing, there’s not much. It’s just kind of normal, but with masks and everyone’s kind of cautious in their own way … Hopefully, the school district becomes more aware of what’s happening.”—DEREK
“I came here to represent my student bodies and also teachers that care about safety, COVID restrictions, and all of the cyber threats that are going on at our school … We’re having a bunch of uncertainty, like if we’re going to go to a school or not or what’s happening with the staff. … I feel stressed sometimes — most of the time — because of that uncertainty that is happening at our school, and most of the students are forced to go to school even though the pandemic is happening.”—OMOR
“If it’s not stress from school, it’s stress from COVID, and if it’s not from COVID it’s from home. So it’s like back-to-back-to-back-to-back. Every time I go to school, there’s always that fear that I might get exposed. It’s happened time and time again. [Then I] Go to school — thinking that it’s safe — I get exposed. I have to take a test. I take the test. Wait a couple days. Go back to school. Get exposed again, and then the cycle continues, and then I have to quarantine again, and I can’t go to school … It feels unpredictable, chaotic and out of control.”—DANNY
“I’m here because I’ve been seeing a lack of attention and a lack of real work from the district level towards creating a safe learning environment for students. As the delta variant and the omicron variant have come up, we haven’t seen much adaptation or change. We’ve only seen the COVID numbers keep increasing, and you haven’t seen much like changing class sizes or changing accountability. There’s no real set rules for kids. Like they don’t tell you exactly what to do if you do have COVID. So we’re seeing kids that have had COVID come back to school. They may not be symptomatic, but they’re still able to transmit it. What we need is a lot more structure.”—MARINE
“The day-to-day life of students — the stress, friendship balances, home stress, school stress, academic stress — it all goes on, but with an added layer of COVID overtop of it. So we’re now having to factor in the fact that we’re trying to avoid a disease, avoid getting our family — who may be elderly or immunocompromised — sick. There’s a ton of stress placed on us as students to mature and come of age within a time when not even the adults in our lives really quite know what they’re doing … As students we need to see a little bit more work and dedication be put into not only how our academic learning goes, our test scores and everything like that, but our actual safety at school.”—SHAKINAH
Highlights from Youth Speakers
“The district needs to realize that students do want to go back in person, but we are hesitant to go back when we feel that the district is not prioritizing students’ health and safety. I think I can safely speak on behalf of all students when I say that we want to have a good high school experience where we can learn and have fun.”—DELANO
“I got in a car crash, and all my athletics have been thrown away from me … and that’s the point that I went to school for. So how I managed — because I felt like I didn’t get no help from the counselors or people that are supposed to be there — who I reached out to … were teachers that are supposed to teach but that they found extra time for me to talk about my mental health … I want more counselors of color, because … not a lot of people are comfortable talking to a random person that’s probably not their color. I want to resonate with people that’s like me.”—TREVON
“We’d also like to acknowledge the fact that there’s a lot of teachers and educators who do stand beside us and in solidarity with this movement but obviously can’t put their livelihoods and jobs at risk because there will be retaliation against that.”—ALEXIS
“If there were ethnic studies laced to our curriculum, I wonder how much better we could understand our present issues and problems. We could understand for example, why according to the CDC, Indigenous people die of COVID in this country at 2.2 times the rate of white people and are hospitalized at 3.3 times the rate. We could understand what systemic barriers there are that make Black people 1.9 times more likely to die of COVID than their white peers, and Latino and Latinx people 2.1 times more likely to die of COVID than our white counterparts.”—ANYA
“Seattle has the second richest person on earth, Jeff Bezos, with an estimated net worth of $202 billion having this company based right here in Seattle. So we have enough money, it’s our priorities aren’t set to keep our youth safe in this time.”—MILES
“We continue to rally and speak and fight, because students do not have a seat at the table. And if you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re on the menu, and that is not an option …”—RENA
Reflections of the Co-Organizers After the Walkout
“I honestly feel so empowered right now. All these people here … you could just tell by the energy of the crowd, these are people who really care about this issue, and they are really here to make our voices heard. As youth we are silenced often because we are seen as younger people that can’t get things done, can’t move. Seeing all these people here and hearing people speak, it’s so empowering for me, not only as an organizer but just as a student who goes to school every day in an environment that is insane. Like hearing all these people being here to stand up for that, it makes me feel … not only empowered, I just feel so moved.”—NYA
“I feel the exact same way. Organizing has always been part of my life. It’s something that my family does. My mom does it for a living. I have family who works in SPS, my whole life, so I’ve been seeing it happen, I’ve been seeing them protest, and I’ve been a part of it. To be a part of making my own walkout and rally with Nya has been really inspiring, but if we’re going to be completely honest, it’s sad. I shouldn’t have to be doing this as a 17-year-old. I shouldn’t have to be coming out here fighting for my safety and my health. In the education system, that’s supposed to be a given. I don’t want to be doing this, but I have to, because no one else is doing it. So yes, I feel inspired and I feel like change is coming, but it also saddens me that we have to do this in the first place.”—MIA
Editors’ Note: A previous version of this article misspelled a student’s name as “Payton” and was updated on 01/21/2022 with the correct name of “Chetan.” Chetan’s quote was also updated for additional clarity.
Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, New York; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, Washington, before settling in South Seattle. He writes about education for the Emerald. Contact him here.
Chloe Collyer (they/them) is a Seattle-born photographer, photojournalist, and photo educator whose work is deeply connected to the history and marginalized communities of the Pacific Northwest. For the past decade, Chloe has taught photography to youth while freelancing for local and national editorial clients.
📸 Featured Image: Danny (center), 12th grade, Nova High School; Marine (left), 11th grade, Nova High School; and Shakinah (right), 11th grade, Nova High School at the Student COVID-19 Walkout on Jan. 14, 2022. (Photo: Chloe Collyer)
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