School Climate & Safety

To Excuse or Not to Excuse? How Districts Are Handling the Climate Strike

By Arianna Prothero — September 19, 2019 3 min read
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Students around the world are planning to participate in a global climate strike on Friday, and the nation’s largest school district has told students they can skip class—without punishment—to participate.

New York City schools notified families earlier this week that it would excuse absences for students attending climate protests ahead of the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York next week.

Climate change is shaping up to be one of the most animating issues for young people. As a growing wave of students continue to demonstrate in large protests around issues such as gun violence and climate change, it does pose challenges for how school districts should handle youth activism that takes kids out of classrooms during the school day.

There’s no universal approach that school districts are following, similar to what we saw in 2018 when hundreds of thousands of American students walked out of school to protest gun violence. In the case of the walkouts, many administrators were concerned about student safety and urged students to plan in-school activities to express their views.

Many large districts, even some in otherwise politically progressive areas, are not following New York’s lead. The Seattle district, for example, will not excuse absences for students participating in the strike, reports the Seattle Times.

Miami-Dade Public Schools is also not excusing absences for the strike, according to the Miami Herald.

Schools in the nation’s second largest district, Los Angeles Unifed School District, are holding “walk-ins” as an alternative to leaving school to participate in a protest.

“Our goal is to provide students with the opportunity to express themselves at school,” said a LAUSD spokesperson in a statement.

Among the districts that are allowing students to skip class without penalty are Chicago Public Schools (as long as students return to class after the protest), Portland Public Schools in Oregon, and Ann Arbor Public Schools in Michigan, according to local media reports.

The climate strike is encouraging young people, as well as adults, to walk out of their classrooms and workplaces to protest the use of fossil fuels and galvanize world leaders to take more aggressive action to address a warming planet. One thousand protests are planned in the United States alone, according to the Global Climate Strike website.

Climate Change Is an Important Issue for Students

Many teenagers consider climate change one of the biggest issues facing their generation.

A quarter of 13 to 17-year olds say they have taken some form of action to address climate change—whether it was attending a protest, writing to their lawmakers, or participating in a walkout—according to a poll released this week by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Washington Post.

A majority of teens reported feeling afraid, angry, and motivated by climate change. A significant majority, 86 percent, believe climate change is caused by humans, the survey found.

Climate change is nearly as important as gun policy for many teens. Sixty-one percent of teens indicated in the survey that climate change is either very important or extremely important. Sixty-four percent said the same of gun policy and 54 percent ranked immigration as very or extremely important.

The climate protests have been inspired, in part, by 16-year-old Swedish environmentalist Greta Thurnberg. Thurnberg sailed across the Atlantic on an emissions-free boat to draw attention to climate change, arriving in New York Harbor last month.

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Photo: Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, lower center, participates in a Youth Climate Strike outside the United Nations, Friday, Aug. 30, 2019 in New York. Thunberg is scheduled to address the United Nations Climate Action Summit on September 23. --Mary Altaffer/AP

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.