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Two positions, one action – COVID prompts student walkouts at Silverton High School

By Stephen Floyd

Students at Silverton High School staged opposing protests last month to highlight what they believed were harmful COVID conditions in the classroom.

A walkout held Jan. 19 protested state mandates requiring students to wear face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, while a walkout held Jan. 20 called for a two-week return to distance learning in light of increasing infection rates and burnout among teachers and staff during the Omicron wave.

Officials with the Silver Falls School District did not respond to requests for comment prior to press time.

A spike in infections, burnout

Planning for the walkouts began when junior Grace Payton was exposed to COVID after returning to school from winter break. She spent a week in quarantine and kept receiving messages about students and teachers who were getting sick or were unable to come to school.

At the same time she watched COVID rates triple her first week back from break, according to statistics published by the district. When the following week saw cases rise again, Payton said enough was enough.

“Seeing this absolutely crazy spike, along with nothing being done at SHS, I began talking about [a walkout] and messaging my friends,” she said.

Payton said they wanted to encourage administrators to allow a two-week return to distance learning and suspension of extra-curricular activities, with the goal of stemming the spread of COVID and letting teachers and students who are sick or burned out recover.

Anti-maskers walk out

After planning a walkout for Jan. 20 and spreading the word, Payton said within hours she heard of another walkout planned for Jan. 19 by students opposed to COVID restrictions. An Instagram page called SHSForFreedom, run by students Avianna Willette and Ailis Ferry, promoted a “Screw Masks Walkout,” claiming masks in schools were “institutionalized child abuse” and prevented a healthy learning environment.

Willette and Ferry could not be reached for comment.

A video of the Jan. 19 walkout showed Willette and Ferry speaking with Principal Sione Thompson and Superintendent Scott Drue about their concerns. Thompson and Drue wore masks, while the student protestors did not.

Willette said their main concern was letting students have a voice when it seems like politicians and other adults are calling the shots on COVID mandates.

“We’re the ones directly affected,” she said. “We’re the ones actually having to wear masks every day in school.”

Ferry added she does not see why masks remain necessary in the classroom when COVID cases continue
to rise.

“Nothing’s changed,” she said. “The numbers haven’t dropped, they haven’t changed, but we’re still having to wear facemasks.”

Both agreed their goal is not to prevent students from wearing masks if they choose to, but that the rights of those who chose not to should be respected as well.

“America is about freedom, and freedom is choice,” said Willette.

Polarized students

Payton said she has not spoken to Willette or Ferry about their anti-mask walkout, but was not surprised the issue became polarizing for students.

“If there is one thing that says ‘Silverton High School,’ it’s an argument about the pandemic,” she said.

Payton said she was saddened by some of the content posted to SHSForFreedom, which she described as “fake information using manipulated articles.” However she did not argue against their right to demonstrate.

“Their intentions frankly hurt our school,” said Payton. “But if I have a right to this, so do they.”

The Jan. 20 walkout was also attended by Thompson and Drue. Payton was able to express her desires for a two-week return to distance learning and said Thompson said he would bring their concerns to the school board.

Payton said simply organizing the walkout has opened doors with administrators and faculty that were not previously afforded to students.

“Until I started speaking out, I would just get the same responses again and again: Follow the rules, keep your mask up, stay safe,” she said. “Now that I’ve planned this, teachers and students have felt more comfortable talking about their experiences and what’s happening in the district.”

Teachers pushed too far

Payton said learning conditions within the district are dire. It has become difficult to keep qualified teachers in the classroom, and more and more often students are receiving instruction from substitute teachers who are underqualified and overwhelmed.

Open substitute teaching positions are currently highlighted on the district’s homepage.

Payton acknowledged this is not the district’s fault because the entire teaching profession is experiencing high turnover and burnout. However she said pushing faculty and students harder is not the answer.

“If I had to describe life at SHS right now it’d be: Depleted,” she said. “We’re all running on empty here.”

In a Facebook post Jan. 16, the Silver Falls Education Association said local teachers have not been immune to national trends.

“The pandemic has not only handed educators new challenges, it has exacerbated the preexisting issues in education,” said the post, referencing an editorial from Forbes titled “Why Education Is About To Reach A Crisis Of Epic Proportions.”

The association supported the editorial’s conclusions that teachers need lighter workloads and latitude in instruction to meet students where they are rather than pressure them to make up for lost time. It said trust needs to be rebuilt between teachers and administrators, and that teachers need higher morale if they plan to remain on staff.

The association could not be reached for additional comment prior to press time.

Students standing up

Payton said, when all is said and done, she hopes district administrators, as well as the community at large, will acknowledge that students took action and spoke up for themselves.

“If there’s one thing they take away from it all it’s that we showed up,” she said.

Payton acknowledged she does not feel suited for activism given her inclinations toward pessimism, but she trusts Silverton to rise to the occasion.

“If anything gives me hope it’s this community’s compassion,” she said. “I hope this shows the kid who was too scared to join us that we’re here, that they have students just like them.”

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