Students in D.C. region stage walkouts over COVID safety The walkouts were among several student-led demonstrations over coronavirus safety protocols in schools across the country this month.
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Students in D.C. region stage walkouts over COVID safety

Jabari Paul, 17, holds up a sign during a demonstration protesting COVID safety conditions inside his high school, Benjamin Banneker Academic High School. Debbie Truong/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Debbie Truong/WAMU/DCist

At lunchtime, 17-year-old Jabari Paul steers clear of the cafeteria at his D.C. high school.

"I fear taking my mask off in the building," the teenager said. "I avoid eating."

Paul walked out of Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Shaw on Tuesday afternoon with a few dozen other students to demand D.C. Public Schools bolster COVID-19 safety protocols inside school buildings.

The teenagers called for several changes, including options for eating lunch in less crowded spaces, mandatory weekly coronavirus testing of all students, and virtual learning for all families who want it.

The walkout at Banneker, a magnet high school that draws top-performing students from around the city, was among several student-led demonstrations over coronavirus safety protocols in schools across the country this month. Last week, hundreds of students in Montgomery County, Md. also walked out of classrooms.

Top city education officials in the District have routinely defended the city's health safeguards on campuses throughout the pandemic. They point to changes such as upgrades the city has made to ventilation systems and a requirement that schools test at least 10 percent of its students each week for the coronavirus.

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"Where we see cases we respond accordingly," D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee said in December. "But we also know that school is the best place for students to be right now to learn and be supported."

But some students and educators say their experiences inside buildings do not match the picture portrayed by city leaders.

On Friday, about three dozen teachers at Anacostia High School stopped work for several hours to meet with administrators over a litany of problems educators have encountered.

The meeting was spurred by a shooting that occurred near the school earlier in the week that left bullet holes in the school building, according to Carlene Reid, a member of the D.C. State Board of Education who represents the neighborhood where Anacostia High School sits.

But the meeting evolved into a forum where teachers expressed other complaints, including what they viewed as inadequate protections during the pandemic, Reid said.

One Anacostia teacher said some educators felt the school should have moved learning online in December when several staff members tested positive for the virus. Teachers were also upset the school lacked basic necessities, such as hand soap in restrooms.

"We are at risk," the teacher said. "Schools aren't necessarily living up to the safety protocols or measures that they said they would."

It is also difficult to determine how many coronavirus cases have been identified on campuses at a given time, students and educators say.

D.C. Health publishes data on the number of COVID-19 cases at each of the city's schools, including at charters and private schools. D.C. Public Schools also regularly shares its own coronavirus data online and notifies community members when students or staff test positive for the virus.

But the data shared by the 50,000-student school system doesn't always align with information students learn on their own.

In December, The Beacon, the student newspaper at Woodrow Wilson High School in Tenleytown reported more than 50 students had tested positive for the coronavirus in a single week.

At the time, the school community had received official notifications for only 18 cases, according to The Beacon. And the website the city uses to track coronavirus cases by campus had recorded even fewer cases for the entire academic year.

About three dozen students walked out of Benjamin Banneker Academic High School on Tuesday. Debbie Truong/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Debbie Truong/WAMU/DCist

Brianna Stallings, an 18-year-old high school senior at Banneker, said having up-to-date information about how many of her peers are infected with the coronavirus at a time, would help her family decide if they feel safe sending her to school.

Crowding in hallways and classrooms is a major issue, the teenager said. Creating a hybrid learning schedule, where some students could log on to class virtually, would create more space in buildings for students who attend school in person to practice physical distancing, she added.

Stallings said she is fully vaccinated against COVID-19 but still worries about infecting her 81-year-old grandmother, who lives with her. The teenager avoids the cafeteria.

"I just don't find a safe space for me to eat. I go the entire school day without eating," said Stallings, who helped organize Tuesday's walkout. "I do it because I really don't want to take my mask down."

Another student who left class, Jaffe Watkins, said he would consider learning remotely if the school system offered the option to more students. The District has granted virtual instruction to students in limited circumstances.

Watkins said he worries about contracting the virus on the Metro commute from his home in Southeast D.C. to Banneker, which takes at least 45 minutes each way.

The 16-year-old said he tries to maintain distance from other students. But that is difficult to do when everyone is waiting to go through metal detectors in the morning, or heading to their lockers at the same time.

"We're all just crowded up together and there's nowhere to go," he said. "I'd rather stay home."

In Maryland, students at several schools in Montgomery County left their classrooms on Friday to protest conditions on their campuses, according to Arjun Rao, a 14-year-old at Poolesville High School who helped organize the walkouts with students across the county.

On average, about 554 cases have been identified for every 100,000 residents in Montgomery County, which means the county is experiencing "high transmission."

The students are pushing the 159,000-student school system to move classes online for two weeks to limit the spread of the coronavirus in classrooms.

Rao said Montgomery County Public Schools needs to better enforce mask requirements. The freshman said that a handful of students at his high school routinely disregard the mandate or wear face masks improperly.

"We are asking for it to be virtual so we have a chance to deal with the outbreak," he said. "It's really been pretty much a mess to be a student."

This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.

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