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When New York City announced that public school students could skip classes without penalties to join the youth climate strikes planned around the world on Friday, you could almost hear a sigh of relief.
Before the announcement, the protests, to be held three days ahead of the United Nations Climate Action Summit here, had thrown a new complication into the usual back-to-school chaos: With the protests framed as a cry to protect their futures from climate disaster, should students heed the call?
Parents had wondered how to word emails to principals requesting excused absences. Teachers had been wondering how to react. Some students had been vowing to protest no matter what, but others had worried about possible repercussions.
Most of all, the decision last week by the nation’s largest school district buoyed national protest organizers, who are hoping that the demonstrations will be the largest on climate in the country’s history, with at least 800 planned across the 50 states. They expressed hope that other districts around the country would follow suit.
“Holy smokes, this thing could get HUGE,” Jamie Henn, a founder of the climate action organization 350.org, said on Twitter after the decision was announced by New York City’s Department of Education.
But many critics — ranging from climate-change deniers to people who argue for a less radical approach to fighting climate change — said Mayor Bill de Blasio was using school attendance policy to promote a political aim. The New York Post’s editorial board called the decision “out-and-out government sponsorship of a particular point of view.”
There is also always the risk that a few students could take advantage of the opportunity to skip school for fun.
As of Monday afternoon, many other large districts in the country were debating what position to take. A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Unified School District said officials were “still finalizing our plans.” In the smaller Cambridge, Mass., City Council members on Tuesday will discuss a motion to excuse students.
By itself, the turnout for the protest in New York — including the city’s 1.1 million public school students — is a test of the movement’s ability to make itself felt by disrupting everyday life and getting noticed by the political leaders who are gathering in New York for the climate summit and the General Assembly meeting that follows it.
Demonstrators as young as 9 had already turned up to greet the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg when she arrived last month by an emissions-free yacht in New York Harbor. Greta has inspired Friday student protests in at least 100 countries.
Larger crowds, mostly of high school students, have demonstrated with her on two recent Fridays at the United Nations.
“This completely changes things, and it’s our doing,” said Xiye Baptiste, 17, a senior at Beacon High School in Manhattan, where individual teachers were planning to accompany some students to the strike even before the city gave official permission. Xiye, who lives in Morningside Heights, said she worked with other youth organizers to get 15 City Council members to request the excused absences from the Education Department.
“We’re not against the school system,” she said. “We need the schools to work with us because our larger goal is to stop the fossil fuel industry.”
At Manhattan’s Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, news of the excused absences “changed the dynamic,” persuading many students on the fence to plan on joining, said Olivia Wohlgemuth, a senior from Park Slope, Brooklyn.
Last year, New York allowed absences for students who protested for gun control in solidarity with students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where a gunman killed 14 students and three staff members.
Olivia suggested that the parallel to those protests implied climate change was as urgent, tangible and possible to address through legislation as gun violence is.
Students will need consent from their parents or guardians to be excused on Friday, education officials said.
But the excused absences do not by themselves solve every puzzle. Some teachers said they felt torn between attending the strikes and staying in class to teach on the subject to students without permission to leave. And while young children are increasingly showing interest in joining demonstrations, elementary school students, as on ordinary school days, are not allowed to leave school without a caretaker, which will limit the number who can take part.
Some teachers have quietly groused that it would be more effective to teach students in school about climate; and critics of the decision argued that Mr. de Blasio risked politicizing education by granting excused absences for particular causes. The mayor has made climate action a centerpiece of his presidential campaign.
The Education Department will send guidelines to schools on Tuesday, encouraging them to hold discussions “about the impact of change and the importance of civic engagement,” said a spokesman, Will Mantell.
Teachers will also receive age-appropriate resources on climate change that are part of a curriculum already adopted by many schools, as well as materials on historical student protests and information on the impact of environmental issues.
Some 600 medical professionals across the country have also signed a virtual “doctor’s note” encouraging teachers to excuse students on the grounds that climate change is dangerous to their and others’ health.