FAIRFAX, Va. – One of the nation's largest school districts will allow students time off to participate in protests, a novel policy that proponents argue is the only way to handle a wave of student activism roiling the nation.
Starting Jan. 27, Fairfax County Public Schools in northern Virginia will permit students in seventh through 12th grades one excused absence each school year for loosely defined "civic engagement activities," school system spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell said. Such activities might include marches, sit-ins or trips to Richmond to lobby legislators, said Fairfax School Board Member Ryan McElveen, who introduced the policy.
Fairfax schools — whose approximately 188,000 students make it among the dozen largest school systems in the United States and the biggest in Virginia — is probably the first district in the nation to adopt this kind of rule, said experts who have studied student activism. When McElveen searched for model policies in the months before debuting his own, he could not find one.
"I think we're setting the stage for the rest of the nation with this," he said. "It's a dawning of a new day in student activism, and school systems everywhere are going to have to be responsive to it."
But he has already faced some backlash online from conservative critics who charge the policy is the latest instance of the left coddling its too-liberal, too-sensitive youth.
It was student activism following the 2018 massacre at a Parkland, Fla., high school and, more recently, surrounding climate change that spurred McElveen to introduce the proposal in February, he said. Still, aware of the fraught political moment, administrators crafted the policy to be as neutral as possible, McElveen said.
Under the guidelines, students must fill out a form at least two days ahead of their planned absence that explains the reason they plan to miss school, McElveen said. But the teenagers do not need administrators' sign-off, McElveen said. Although front office staff at each school — most likely an assistant principal — will glance over a student's request, school officials can't veto it, McElveen said.
"There is no strong definition of a 'civic engagement' activity," he said, "because I think we have to be careful not to pick and choose activities."