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Fairfax County Public Schools Say Students Can Skip Class For Protests

Fairfax County Public Schools in Merrifield, Virginia. (Matthew Barakat/AP)
Fairfax County Public Schools in Merrifield, Virginia. (Matthew Barakat/AP)

In 2019, a lot of parents had to decide: Should they let their kids skip school to protest?

In September, students in 150 countries skipped class to participate in the global climate strike led by 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg. New York City gave its students an excused day off with parental consent for those who wanted to take to the streets.

Now, one of the largest school districts in the country, Fairfax School District in Northern Virginia, says starting Jan. 21, the district will let its nearly 189,000 students use one excused absence every school year for a protest they may want to attend.

Conservative critics say the day off is a plot to fuel left-leaning young people. Some worry the policy lets schools decide what protests are worthy of an excused absence.

Fairfax School Board member Ryan McElveen, who introduced the policy, says the move wasn't meant to be political.

"We wrote the language so that it would be completely neutral and that students from all walks of life could participate," he says.

Education institutions are responsible for fostering productive civic engagement, he says, which includes activities such as attending protests and sit-ins, and meeting with lawmakers.

The rise of student activism around hot-button issues such as gun control and climate change "galvanized our board into looking at this policy language" that would make participating in protests more accessible for students, McElveen says.

For students to take advantage of the new guidelines, they must submit a form two days in advance, identifying where the civic engagement will take place and whether they have parental or guardian permission to do so, he explains.

The response from students in the more than 222 schools countywide has been positive so far, he says.

"They just want to make sure that they can have their voices heard and do so without being punished by the school system," he says.

But what if some students attend a protest that many of their peers find offensive? McElveen says ultimately, the district cannot dictate what kids protest for or against, or which group they protest with.

"To be completely honest with you, we’re in uncharted waters here. Someone has to take the first dive into the pool," he says. "And so I think that’s what Fairfax County has done and hopefully other school systems can learn from us."

Marcelle Hutchins produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

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