Inside the Student-Led Covid Walkouts

When Ayleen Serrano returned to school after the recent winter break, the 15-year-old came back to nearly empty hallways, absent classmates, and what she describes as a “lifeless” atmosphere. As the days passed, fewer of her peers showed up at MetWest High School in Oakland, California; her teachers and classmates were testing positive for Covid-19, or had been exposed and were waiting for tests, or simply feared for their safety.

Serrano and her friends decided that if the school wasn’t going to take steps to make them feel safer coming to school, like providing regular tests for all students, they would have to demand those measures themselves. Serrano and her classmates Ximena Santana, 15, and Benjamin Rendon, 15, decided to start a petition on Google docs. Maybe, said Rendon, they would get “a couple of students” to sign it. They did better than that. The petition drew so much attention, it became a story on the local TV news. Rendon recalls: “I went to watch it when they aired it, and I was like, ‘Damn.’”

In Oakland and around the US, millions of students returned to classrooms amid the surge of the highly contagious Omicron variant. The majority of schools pressed on with in-person learning even as a record-breaking number of Covid cases ripped through the country. Chicago Public Schools canceled classes for five days during a standoff with the teachers union before reaching an agreement to restart in-person schooling. Parents with school-aged kids fretted about not being able to go to work if schools remained closed, but they also worried about kids getting infected in schools, especially as their youngest remain unable to be vaccinated.

Many students, meanwhile, felt left out of the conversation. “I feel like my school had failed me,” says Jaiden Briese, a 15-year-old sophomore at Denver Public Schools in Colorado. Since returning to school after winter break, he was wary of the crowded hallways between periods and the classmates who were less careful about wearing masks. (When I spoke to him, Briese was home from school, recovering from Covid.)

His frustrations are shared by his 15-year-old classmate Haven Coleman. A seasoned organizer for climate action, Coleman was already thinking about ways to get the district’s attention when the semester began. As she scrolled through social media, she noticed other student actions starting to take place—including the petition that Serrano, Santana, and Rendon started a thousand miles away in Oakland.

Coleman texted Briese. They texted other classmates about the idea of a petition; soon, word spread to students from another Denver high school. Days later, a student-led petition demanding safer conditions at Denver Public Schools joined the chorus of similar actions from students in Boston, Chicago, New York City, and Oakland.

“You Need to Listen to Us”

Student protesters who spoke with WIRED described how they reached out to peers using text messages and social media apps to help shape their demands of their school districts.

A protest in New York started as a late-night text. Cruz Warshaw, a junior at Stuyvesant High School, pitched the idea to her friends Rifah Saba and Samantha Farrow, also juniors: Do you want to stage a walkout to make the mayor close the schools?