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Teen climate activists promise to keep striking despite strict school absence policies

Azalea Danes, 16, expected opposition from climate change deniers and dismissive lawmakers when she walked out of school in support of the Fridays For Future movement last March. But she wasn't expecting strong pushback from her teachers, who had always urged her to "make a change," "learn about the world around you," and "believe you can do anything!"

Those around her, especially her teachers, said that striking is not the answer. "The response (I) got most frequently from people in power is them asking, 'Why can't you do something, anything else?' " Danes said.

Danes and fellow students striking in New York City were inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, who instigated Fridays For Future, a movement that protests adult procrastination in the face of global climate emergency. Thunberg has skipped school each Friday to lobby at the steps of the Swedish Parliament for climate legislation that will limit fossil fuel emissions.

Students worldwide began skipping school weekly to lobby in front of local government buildings, or in New York City, the United Nations headquarters. Some even created their own organizations in support of Fridays For Future, such as Earth Uprising, founded by Alexandria Villasenor, 14, a climate activist who has been striking outside of the UN Headquarters in New York for the last nine months. On March 15, the largest climate protests on record took place, with more than 2 million students skipping schools in 133 countries to march for effective climate legislation, according to the Fridays For Future website.

Despite staggering numbers, legal school attendance requirements hinder efforts to increase participation at marches. Students who choose to strike weekly must give up about one-fifth of school hours, and even those who attend occasional marches will have additional absences on record.

All public schools in New York City have to follow the New York City Department of Education's absence policy. If a student skips school to strike, no matter if it is an act of civic engagement or active learning, schools have a legal responsibility to record a student's absence if they miss more than one class period.

Absences add up. According to the New York City Department of Education's website, if students miss more than 10% of the school year, they are considered chronically absent, meaning they can struggle to pass classes and graduate.

"(Chronic absence) hasn't been much of a problem yet, since the bulk of the weekly protesters started sometime in December and January, but it (will) be an issue with more people attempting weekly striking (in the) new school year," said Ritvik Janamsetty, 16, Earth Uprising's press coordinator.

If a student attends an occasional weekly strike or larger march, they might be able to receive an excused absence. Excused absences do not count towards the 10% of absent days leading to chronic absence. However, Olivia Wohlgemuth, 16, the activist communication coordinator for Earth Uprising, believes schools are wary of granting too many excused absences.

"(Teachers) just have no reason to believe that every student who takes advantage of the excused absence is actually striking," Wohlgemuth said. Some teachers scheduled tests on the day of the march, which discouraged students from attending, she said.

It is not just teachers who are dubious. "Most opposition is actually from other climate activists, telling me that they think we are doing the activism wrong," Wohlgemuth said.

"The reason we're striking school is that school isn't giving us the tools to make the change we need. We have to do it on our own time."

"There is nothing else we can do because none of us can vote yet," Danes said. "At this point it's about completely uprooting, dismantling and rebuilding the system that we are under, rather than trying to work within it."

Despite their commitment to skipping school once a week, some organizers say that the systemic change they are envisioning begins in public school classrooms.

"For people to care, they need to know the facts," Janamsetty said. "A lot of people don't know how to make personal changes to better the environment. Having comprehensive climate education will help change the misbeliefs."

"The fact of the matter is, we're not getting the education we need for the changing life and changing future that we're facing," Wohlgemuth said. "We refuse to sit in school while our futures and our present are at stake."

Teen organizers around the world are planning another march on Sept. 20 to increase participation and call for further action. Earth Uprising is building a team of high schoolers representing as many New York schools as possible, who will publicize the march among their classmates.

"We're going to make sure that no matter what, there's at least one or two students striking in New York City every Friday," Wohlgemuth said. "We want to show consistency and growth and show we're not backing down."

For those who can't afford to leave their jobs or schools during the day, Earth Uprising asks that people take an 11-minute moment of silence to symbolize the 11 years left to alleviate climate change. Posting about the march on social media platforms can also boost awareness about the movement. A short break or social media post may seem trivial, but Janamsetty believes it's essential.

"The amplification of our message only happens if a lot of people get on board with small activities," Janamsetty said.

In late June, New York City declared a climate emergency and laid out steps the city can take to reduce emissions. Wohlgemuth hopes the continued marches will inspire legislators to follow through with these steps.

"Our main goal is for (legislators) to fulfill the promises made in the climate emergency declaration," Wohlgemuth said. "That includes a just transition from an economy based on fossil fuels to one based on renewable energy, (while) prioritizing frontline communities."

Until that happens, activists will continue striking from school regardless of the opposition they face.

"This will impact the lives of our generation and the generations of our children," Janamsetty said. "What's the point of attending school and doing the systematic things our parents tell us to do when we don't have a future to begin with?"

This article was produced in collaboration with the two-week Institute for Environmental Journalism Summer program, through which high school students explore the nation's most pressing environmental concerns in NYC's urban neighborhoods or Maine's rugged outdoors.

Julia Stern, 15, is an iGeneration Youth reporter living in New York City. See more stories at igenerationyouth.com

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