As student activists fight for COVID safety measures at schools, some face criticism
These days after classes, Michael Lee-Chang pulls up his mother’s email inbox and finds the latest update of daily coronavirus cases at his school, Redondo Union High. The 18-year-old senior scans for other school announcements and uploads the information to his Instagram stories, where some 4,700 followers, mainly students, check out news otherwise sent only to parents.
Nearly 400 miles north, Nuriel Cahigas, 17, spends her evenings on Zoom with students from other Oakland schools going over organizing tactics. In between writing college scholarship essays and studying for Advanced Placement classes, the Oakland Technical High School senior has participated in a boycott that garnered national attention about concerns Oakland students have over districtwide coronavirus safety protocols.
In schools — where passions among adults have driven acrimonious debates and lawsuits over distance learning, masks and vaccine mandates — the pandemic has ignited a new chapter of activism among students in California and across the country since their return from winter break. Students have spoken out during school board meetings, fired up social media accounts, and organized boycotts, petitions and walkouts, efforts prompted by what they viewed as lax campus safety measures amid the surge of the highly contagious Omicron variant.
Michael and Nuriel have different styles but a shared desire to make their schools as safe as they can — and have learned a sobering lesson on determination as they confronted scrutiny and criticism from their communities.
In Redondo Beach, Michael took on the role of public advocate, blasting out online information to his classmates and calling for increased safety measures at a protest that fizzled when the bell rang for next period. But he launched a conversation. Nuriel joined student organizers in Oakland to advocate for access to medical-grade masks for all students and moderated a Zoom call for students to share their experiences.
In recent weeks, students in Boston, Chicago and New York mobilized to demand their schools increase safety measures including providing medical-grade masks, more testing and offering a remote learning option at least until the surge in coronavirus cases substantially falls.
“It’s been hectic, to put it short,” Michael said.
School administrators in Redondo Beach and Oakland say classrooms remain safe. California requires everyone on campus to wear a mask indoors and promotes layers of protection, including upgraded air filters and more campus cleaning. Yet even as infection rates have begun to decline since school resumed three weeks ago, educators are struggling to keep campus doors open amid high absentee rates among teachers and students, staff shortages and limited supplies of testing and masks.
When Michael heard through word-of-mouth about a loosely planned protest asking for improved safety measures at Redondo Union High School, the senior shared it with his online followers. Among Redondo Union High’s 3,000 students, more than 400 had tested positive during the second week back from winter break. Michael said his classes started out full at the beginning of the semester, but dwindled in size as more students became infected or refused to come to school.
He understood the worries among many of his classmates, who saw that proper mask-wearing was not always enforced in classrooms. The school did not provide upgraded masks for all students despite an L.A. County public health rule requiring medical-grade masks for teachers and staff.
Michael said he received a call from administrators trying to figure out who instigated the protest, which he said he did not organize. But the call, he said, left him feeling that the district should address student concerns, not stifle them. So he spoke up at a school board meeting.
“These guidelines are fine, but what’s the point if they’re not being enforced?” he said at the Jan. 11 meeting. “I’m seeing eight through 18 students missing from each of my classes right now, and most because they’re out from COVID, but some because they’re not comfortable coming back dealing with the current problem.”
The day after the board meeting, dozens of students skipped a study hall period in protest but returned to class after about 15 minutes. At lunch, Michael said he was sitting with friends when another student spilled milk on him, he believes in response to his activism. But his classmates have been largely supportive, he said.
Redondo Union High Principal Anthony Bridi said he did not try to stop the students.
“Cases at the time were rising, there was kind of that anxiety and the ‘what-if’ scenarios,” Bridi said. “It was that opportune time when tensions were high and a way for all students to be heard.”
Bridi said he sat down with students to try to answer their questions about what measures the school could take. “We want to be supportive of every student,” he said. Ultimately, however, the school district would not offer a distance learning option and does not have enough KN95 masks to give to every student, although they are available to those who ask.
Michael then became a target of social media criticism. An Instagram account claiming to represent a group of Redondo Beach parents posted a snippet of Michael’s school board speech with the caption telling him, “the fearful,” to stay home and enroll in independent study.
“It’s just bonkers,” he said. “It’s surprising what adults say. Their actions just speak for themselves.”
Nuriel said she too has steeled herself against critics. She and other student organizers, who protested what they saw as weak and uneven school safety measures, have been accused of being “paid actors” by adults who deny the coronavirus exists.
“When you grow up with the internet, you learn to avoid a lot of that,” Nuriel said, “or you learn how to hit that block button, hit that report button.” Throughout her high school years, Nuriel has joined other students in advocating for school-related causes, including defunding school police and tighter policies on sexual harassment.
Coronavirus testing and upgraded masks have been available for students at Oakland Technical High, but not at all district schools. So when she heard students and teachers were organizing to increase access for all students, she joined the cause.
In early January — after teachers in the district participated in “sickouts” over similar issues, leading to some school closures — students at MetWest High School launched a petition demanding upgraded masks, expanded outdoor lunch areas and mandatory weekly testing. Nuriel added her name to the petition and got involved.
In the Oakland Unified School District, hundreds of teachers participated in a “sickout” protest to demand increased pandemic safety measures.
The petition caught national attention. Oakland Unified School District responded, distributing KN95 masks to students — which officials had planned to do before the petition circulated — and is in the process of expanding outdoor space, said John Sasaki, district spokesperson.
On a recent Friday, Nuriel took on the role of moderator during a student-organized Zoom call, inviting students and teachers to shared their experiences about being back in class, many half-empty, and concerns about becoming infected and bringing the virus home to families.
A districtwide student boycott was announced for Jan. 18, but it’s uncertain how many students participated as absentee rates have been high. Nuriel had already stayed home during the teacher sickouts and decided to attend classes.
On Tuesday, the district announced a tentative agreement with the Oakland Education Assn., the teachers union. The agreement includes giving students and staff access to weekly COVID testing at all school sites, providing baseline testing for all students and staff when they return from spring break, and continuing to provide access to KN95 masks for all. As a result, the students paused their boycott.
Nuriel said she and other students felt empowered by their contributions.
“Usually I’m a pretty pessimistic person, but it does make me optimistic for the future if we as teenagers are doing this, if we as middle schoolers are taking on this work. Obviously, this shows to a lot of adults that, hey, something needs to happen,” Nuriel said.
Michael acknowledged that the Redondo Beach Unified School District has not budged on his requests. Still, he feels his advocacy has been effective in some ways — and he has sat down with the superintendent and school board president to express his concerns. They were listening to students this time, he said.
“I feel like we’ve been successful in getting the conversation started,” Michael said.
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