Student activists campaign for virtual learning


Graphic by Julianne Cruz

Students across the county have utilized the internet as a tool for change through online petitions.

In the new digital age, many people have turned to social media or the internet for everything from entertainment to activism. During the pandemic, public health guidelines discouraging large gatherings or in-person demonstrations led to the rise in popularity of online petitions, where platforms like let users create, share and sign online petitions advocating on a wide range of political and social issues. Some of these virtual petitions have even gained millions of electronic signatures. 

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, MCPS community members have used online petitions to voice their concerns regarding the format of learning. One petition made in late 2020 urged county administrators to allow students to go back to in-person school, and another requested a virtual instruction option as Delta variant cases spiked in August.

After a full return to in-person learning this school year, the arrival of the Omicron variant of coronavirus fueled a sharp rise in cases across Montgomery County. On Jan. 4, in response to this surge, MCPS disclosed new measures for COVID-19 safety, which included placing schools into green, yellow and red zones. Schools that reached five percent or more of positive cases in the past 14 days would be classified as red, and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) would then discuss with MCPS officials whether these schools should switch to virtual learning for a two-week period. 

By Jan. 7, the majority of schools in the county had already surpassed five percent of positive cases, entering the red zone. Many students and parents had believed that crossing this 5 percent threshold would be a direct trigger for a shift to online learning. However, instead of closing down the “red” schools, the county stopped reporting COVID data with the color-coding system. Instead, schools will continue in-person, and MCPS and the DHHS will examine them on a case-by-case basis to determine if a transition to virtual learning is necessary. 

Some RM students feel skeptical about this decision, and believe it is too late for MCPS to take meaningful action. “MCPS abandoning the five percent rule was kind of just their way of hiding the fact that we were in a really bad state,” sophomore Rushi Jain said. “Though, I think virtual learning where we are now, two to three weeks later, wouldn’t do as good because cases are much lower now…the COVID spike really happened right around winter break.”

In reaction, more online petitions have come into circulation. These petitions were started and shared across various social media platforms by MCPS students themselves who are concerned about staying in person. 

The most widespread petition, which has received more than 21,000 signatures in the span of two weeks, was created by Zoe Cantor, a senior at Walt Whitman High School. “Not expecting this extreme upsurge, the county is scrambling now, trying to force us to stay in school, even though it is unsafe,” Cantor wrote in the petition. Due to its significant increase in signatures in a short period of time, the petition was later brought up at the Jan. 13 Board of Education meeting. 

Despite the ability of online petitions to quickly diffuse, students at RM seem to be hesitant about their capacity to incite change, especially compared to other methods of protest such as walkouts and demonstrations. “In my honest opinion, online petitions, while good in theory, don’t work. Personally, I feel that actual protests like walkouts and such are a bit more effective, as they can get news coverage and are a very physical showcase of a change that’s wanted,” sophomore Daniel Chernyak said. 

“I feel like anyone can just almost sign an online petition, but going out all through your classes, risking your attendance, that is showing, you know, this is something we believe in,” Jain said. 

But this wave of countywide activism hasn’t been limited to the internet. Over 1,000 students across the county staged a collective walkout for Friday, Jan. 21 to protest the county’s handling of student concerns about the virus. After the school administration raised concerns about the potential disruption caused by the walkout, it was rescheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 26, during advisory. By staging the demonstration during advisory, instructional time would not be impacted and participating students could receive excused absences. Organizers of the RM walkout effort created an Instagram page and post to spread awareness about the event.

Some students thought that rescheduling the event to minimize disruption undermined the purpose of a protest. “I think it taking place during advisory takes the whole point of a “walkout” out of it,” one student commented on the social media post. “[For real], and most of the kids doing it are just gonna be doing it [because] what else is there better to do in advisory,” replied Colin Vega.

Recently, MCPS announced that 16 schools, the majority of which are elementary and middle schools, will go virtual for 10 calendar days starting on Jan. 20. Nonetheless, with the unpredictability of the pandemic, the future of Montgomery County schools still remains uncertain.