DENVER — A crowd of high school students at two Denver schools walked out of class Thursday, Jan. 20 in a protest against Denver Public Schools' COVID-19 safety protocols, which the protest organizers deemed insufficient. The participating groups walked out of Thomas Jefferson High School and North High School, carrying signs with messages like "We are here to learn, not to risk ourselves."
One of the organizers was Haven Coleman, a student at Thomas Jefferson High on the southeast side of Denver. She has been an activist since third grade. Although she began by fighting climate change, and still does, recently her energy has shifted to demanding more from her school district as the Omicron variant of COVID-19 spreads through Colorado.
“As the students of Denver Public Schools, we expect better covid safety regulations due to the incredible surge in COVID-19 cases … it is sad and frustrating having to go to school when it means we are risking our lives,” the Change.org petition Coleman started reads.
Denver Public Schools (DPS), the school district under which Thomas Jefferson High and many other local schools are housed, has taken measures to protect students and staff during the pandemic, but Coleman and students like her do not think the measures go far enough. They also feel like their education is suffering.
“If students or family want to keep students home from school because they don’t feel safe, they can do that. Parents can just call and say [the student] is excused, but it’s not the same level of education that they would get at school," Coleman told Rocky Mountain PBS. "There’s no integrated learning for people at home.”
When Coleman and her classmate, Moxie Maguire, were absent for two days due to a possible COVID-19 exposure earlier this school year, they found that returning to school was more difficult than they had hoped.
“[When you’re absent] you aren’t getting the same education your counterparts in-person are getting, it’s a big gap,” Coleman said. “We were drowning in makeup work.”
Listed in the petition is a demand for an "integrated" learning system so that students who are sick with the virus or who do not feel safe coming to school can have access to the same education as everyone else.
Without that integrated system, students just aren’t learning as much as they need to.
“It’s unfair that people who are choosing their health or the safety of others are sacrificing their education,” Coleman said.
Some students are left frustrated with the quality of their education, and Coleman says that their teachers can only do so much.
“All the teachers are exhausted. They are at their break […] even just in classes you can see how much it’s draining them, having to risk their lives every day,” she said. “They don’t have the energy to help every student that’s missing work so there’s a large gap for students who missed a lot of school.”
In addition to an integrated online learning system, the petition has five other demands:
- KN95/N95 masks are provided to all students on campuses.
- Ventilation in all classrooms and airflow to lessen risk in COVID cases.
- 2x a week PCR and rapid testing for the students in person.
- Access to more outdoor spaces for safe lunches.
- More social distancing measures in the hallways and stairs of schools.
“We’re giving the district a week to meet our demands, starting Jan 12, 2022. If the district has not met our needs by Wednesday, Jan 19, 2022, the student body will walk out the following day in protest. We will continue to walk out every day until our demands are met,” the petition reads. “We are willing to risk our education and go on strike if it means we are protecting our health!”
The petition gained over 700 signatures in a matter of days, but with an enrollment of over 90,000 students, DPS isn’t budging — and closing schools and returning to full remote learning simply isn’t an option.
“We certainly understand our students' frustrations. This is a very difficult time for schools right now, here in Denver and across the state and country. But our scholars and families rely on our schools, and we need to do everything we can to keep them open for in-person learning and support,” DPS director of external communications Will Jones said in a statement to Rocky Mountain PBS. “Too much time has already been lost to the pandemic. We need to accelerate learning and strengthen support in our schools.”
DPS has a data dashboard on its website that details how many students and staff have tested positive for the virus, and how many schools have been forced to temporarily return to remote learning. As of Jan. 19, DPS recorded 91 positive cases among staff, with six individuals in quarantine. Among students, there were 378 cases. North High had five cases and Thomas Jefferson had one.
As for the rest of the demands, a letter Superintendent Alex Marerro sent to Coleman after becoming aware of her petition and walkout states that many of the listed demands are already in the district's expectations.
In the letter, Marerro states that KN95 masks are available for staff and older students, students need only to contact their principal about how to receive these masks. Schools across the district have also been upgrading to HEPA filtration systems in their buildings since 2020, Marerro added.
Free COVID-19 testing resources are available for students as well, although surveillance testing [the twice weekly testing for all students Coleman demands in her petition] will not be pursued due to the “limited impact and further strain on human resources."
Integrated learning and mealtime social distancing are also discussed in the letter, with Marerro stating that Coleman should reach out if Thomas Jefferson High is not meeting district expectations.
In a letter to the families of the students at North High, who participated in the walkout, Principal Scott Wolf reiterated their current COVID-19 safety protocols, and reminds students and parents that leaving school buildings or campus without permission is counted as an unexcused absence.
Regardless of the district’s current protocols and reminders of unexcused absences, students continued with the walk out at both schools.
At North High, students walked to the nearby Viking Park starting at 9:53 a.m. They then walked downtown to Emily Griffith Technical College where some of the organizers met with DPS leaders.
DPS issued a statement to Rocky Mountain PBS, stating, “We continue to be in conversation with student leaders and value their feedback. Right now, we're focused on doing all we can to provide the safest conditions possible in our facilities so that we can keep our schools open for in-person learning.”
Students across the nation have staged similar walkouts due to their schools’ COVID-19 protocols, including groups in Minnesota, New York, Oregon and California.
As for Denver, North High student and organizer Nayeli López said to not underestimate the power of her peers.
“We have many other students who weren’t able to walkout but fully support us,” she said. “This is only the beginning.”
Corbett Stevenson is a journalism intern at Rocky Mountain PBS and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.