One of America’s largest school districts has made the controversial decision to allow students in grades 7 through 12 to apply for one excused absence per year to participate in school-day protests.
More specifically, the new policy, clearly inspired by Greta Thunberg and her “school strike” climate protests (though there’s no mention of the school-aged activist anywhere in the Washington Post’s story about it), will allow students one loosely-defined “civic engagement” absence per year.
As proponents of the policy eagerly highlighted, “civic engagement” doesn’t necessarily mean “protest”. Students can use the absence to go on trips to the state capital, speak with legislators or volunteer on political campaigns.
The policy is being adopted by Fairfax County Public Schools in Northern Virginia, and will take effect on Jan. 27. There are about 188,000 students in the Fairfax district, ranking it in the top 12 districts by student population.
It’s also worth noting that Fairfax is located on the Northern tip of Virginia, making it a suburb of Washington DC. Unlike the bulk of the state, Fairfax and its neighboring counties supported Hillary Clinton in 2016. The wealthy suburbs have been driving Virginia’s shift toward becoming a “purple” swing state.
This is just one more reason why the school district’s new policy is drawing criticism at the national level – although district administrators insist it wasn’t meant to be a political decision. Instead, the district told WaPo that as students increasingly participate in rallies for gun control and climate change, it’s the district’s responsibility to change along with these shifting mores.
Fairfax School Board member Ryan McElveen, who introduced the policy to the board, said he thinks his district is setting a precedent that will be followed across the US.
“I think we’re setting the stage for the rest of the nation with this,” he said. “It’s a dawning of a new day in student activism, and school systems everywhere are going to have to be responsive to it.”
Meira Levinson, a Harvard University professor who studies education, said it’s impossible for school districts to avoid becoming politicized in the current climate, when every new policy or action, no matter how small or insignificant, is viewed as a “win” or a “loss” for conservatives and liberals.
“Each side is so suspicious of the other that it’s become very hard for adults to trust what’s happening in schools is legitimate, if the other side seems to be “winning,'” Levinson said. “We’re all always looking for what’s the political agenda – and that’s why, with this new policy in Fairfax County, there’s going to be contestation about it.”
Under the new policy, students will be required to submit a form notifying the school of their planned absence at least two days ahead of time. Though school officials can review the paperwork, and a parent must sign off, school officials can’t unilaterally veto a student’s request – to do that, a staff member from the district must be called in, likely after the event has already taken place.
Under the guidelines, students must fill out a form at least two days ahead of their planned absence that explains the reason they plan to miss school, McElveen said. They must obtain permission from a parent or guardian, and they must stop by their school campus at least once on the day of their excused absence – a measure adopted to address worries about accreditation, McElveen said.
But the teenagers do not need administrators’ sign-off, McElveen said. Although front office staff at each school – most likely an assistant principal – will glance over a student’s request, school officials can’t veto it, McElveen said. Instead, if a reviewer finds the stated reason for skipping school troubling, a regional assistant superintendent can be alerted and may intervene – but possibly after the protest. The built-in bureaucratic delay is purposeful, McElveen said. “There is no strong definition of a ‘civic engagement’ activity,” he said, “because I think we have to be careful not to pick and choose activities.”
One teenage student who spoke with WaPo for its story on the decision said she believes the new policy will lead to an increase in the number of students participating in school-day protests. She said her parents were initially skeptical of the district’s decision, but “they got on board” after some “convincing” from her and other students.
Plus, Greta Thunberg landing on the cover of Time Magazine earlier this month as its “Person of the Year” probably didn’t hurt. Soon enough, being a regular participant in climate change protests might count as a valuable extracurricular activity, proudly displayed on students’ college applications alongside sports teams and Model UN.
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