More than 100 Seattle Public Schools students walked out of class Monday morning to protest the district’s decision to end the requirement that students and staff wear masks.
Many of those students rallied at district headquarters, the John Stanford Center, to ask Superintendent Brent Jones to reinstate the mask mandate districtwide. Mask requirements for Seattle and most other districts in the state ended a week ago.
“It’s absolutely maddening we have to take time away from our education to fight for safety and health,” said Marigold Wong, a sophomore at Franklin High School.
The newly formed Seattle Student Union, a group of student activists that organized the rally, have been demanding stronger safety protocols since January, including district-issued high-quality masks. The group has been threatening a walkout since Gov. Jay Inslee announced plans to end mask requirements in schools, child care facilities, and most other businesses.
The student union sent the School Board and Jones a letter last week asking that mask requirements continue, or they would take action. Students from schools around the district showed up, including from Franklin, Chief Sealth International, Roosevelt, Lincoln, Nova and Center high schools.
“Every time we try to get hasty and toss our masks off, we have another spike and another thousand people die,” said Eridon Stewart, a 17-year-old senior at Nova High, who spoke at the rally. Stewart said her mother has asthma, and could die if she caught the virus. Other students also talked about the threat COVID-19 poses to family members who are immunocompromised.
Aderyn Kee, a sophomore at Roosevelt High, said she has three family members who have lost their lives to COVID-19. Wearing masks could prevent more from dying, she said.
Although masks are optional, most students at Franklin High have been wearing them, Wong said. But up north at Roosevelt, the majority of students aren’t wearing masks, Kee said.
Luna Crone-Barón said her dad survived cancer, and now that masks aren’t required she and her younger brother are putting him at risk every day.
“It is not fair that I have a teacher who is immunocompromised and has to take care of her elderly grandmother and now she has to be scared every single day coming into the building to teach us and nurture us and do what she loves,” the sophomore at the Center School said. “That is injustice.”
Jones’ announcement that masks were optional also rattled the teachers union, which has been pushing back on the district’s decision as well. The student walkout follows a rally held by the Seattle Education Association on Friday. The teachers union called on the district to fix strained relationships by including teachers and students in decision-making.
SEA claims the district violated a memorandum of understanding when mask requirements ended without bargaining. Union officials said the district had promised to bargain over it first.
In a statement released Monday and signed by Bev Redmond, assistant superintendent of public affairs, the district noted that its decision to end the mask requirement aligns with recent guidance from the state Department of Health and Public Health – Seattle & King County. “We also realize that Gov. Jay Inslee’s March 12 lifting of the masking mandate came fast for some and without an extended time for adjustment,” the statement read. “Understandably, there are many different beliefs, opinions, reasons, and comfort levels around this decision.”
The statement said the district “supports student voice” and will help students “with reassurance, empathy, and respect for the personal choice to mask or not.” The students who walked out are expected to be marked with an unexcused absence for missing class.
The union is standing in solidarity with students who are walking out.
“We watched as students in our classrooms grappled with the implications of this change on their lives and the lives of their families and friends who are immunocompromised or unvaccinated,” said a statement from SEA. “Students were not given any voice in this change or how it would be implemented.”
Students need to be listened to, and administrators and board members should address their demands, SEA officials said.
“What our students are feeling is a direct result of how our system is failing,” the statement said.
At the close of the rally, all of the students turned to face the front of the building so Jones and other administrators could hear them. They chanted: “What do we want? Mask mandates. When do we want it? Now.”