Masters students attend Climate Strike; administration announces excused absences for activism events

Michael Leo

After weeks of behind-the-scenes planning and meetings between administrators and students, administration granted Masters students the opportunity to be excused from school, on Friday, Sept. 20, to attend the Youth Climate Strike in New York City.

On Wednesday, Sept. 18 at 3 p.m., Interim Head of Upper School Peter Newcomb sent an email to the Upper School, announcing the postponement of all Founders Day activities in favor of allowing students to attend the Strike. Masters students were able to play a meaningful role in this historical event, without facing any penalty, other than making up the classwork they missed on the Friday.

 The thousands who attended begin in Foley Square and marched to Battery Park in protest of the inaction and lack of urgency surrounding the climate emergency. Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swede and wunderkind in the world of environmental activism, lead the initiative. Thunberg has arrived in New York after a two-week sail from her home country as she did not want to burn fossil fuel to come speak at the United Nations Climate Change Summit.

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Newcomb’s announcement was made just over three weeks after Senior co-presidents of EFFECT Olivia Sharenow and Sophia Forstmann’s initial outreach to administration on Aug. 26. Following deliberation and meetings between the stakeholders on Sep. 10 and 18, they decided that this solution was the best way to support student activism while giving students the freedom to choose if they wish to participate in the march or attend class.

Newcomb, in connecting the Strike to the School’s mission statement said, “We want our students to be ‘powers-for-good’ in the world and this is a great opportunity for them to do so.”

For those who don’t wish to take the opportunity to strike, administration planned a number of on-campus activities focused on the issue of climate change.

Faculty advisor of EFFECT Courtney White said she is extremely satisfied with the result of the hard work put into creating this opportunity for environmental activism. She said, “I find it really admirable that students are finding ways to responsibly practice activism.”

White emphasized the ongoing relevance of climate action. She said, “It doesn’t just stop at the Climate March. What matters is the follow through.”

EFFECT is planning a week dedicated to climate activism to continue the efforts of the Strike, which will include letter-writing to Congress to push stricter legislation surrounding climate change and a trip to Columbia Law School to listen to experts speak about advocating for climate change policy.

Forstmann and Sharenow consider this a great victory for not only this climate strike, but for sustainability at Masters. Sharenow said, “Putting sustainability at the forefront of Masters and making it a part of our school culture is a big part of what we’re trying to do.”

Going forward, Head of School Laura Danforth and Interim Head of Upper School Peter Newcomb have both said they will excuse a student if they wished to attend a protest or strike for a cause in

which they deeply believe, as they did for the Climate Strike. 

As for any other broad policy, this privilege is not without conditions or intricacies. Head of School Laura Danforth said, “Even if it’s a cause that I as a leader and educator might not agree with, I have to keep that outside of my decision making. However, there is a difference between that [a cause she might not agree with] and supporting a cause towards hatred.”

Danforth was not hesitant to state the importance of events like the Climate Strike support the Masters Mission Statement. “We can’t just say we want our students to be ‘powers-for-good’ in the world. We can’t just talk the talk, we have to walk the walk,” she said.

Though missing class is always a concern for administrators, Interim Head of Upper School Peter Newcomb also said he believes strongly in giving students the freedom to practice activism in forms that are meaningful to them. “If we have a student who believes strongly in something and they have parental support, we want to do everything we can to support that as well,” Newcomb said.

Many other teachers acknowledged the importance of events like these, but also express some concerns over students missing important classwork–especially in classes with stricter curriculums, such as Advanced Placement (AP) classes. AP United States History teacher Colleen Roche said, “It is the student’s responsibility to make up work that they missed.” However she was excited for a future where these events could coincide well with her curriculum. “It could be very interesting to plan lessons around the marches with enough advance warning,” she said.

Many students at the strike still value their significance much more than that of one missed day of school. Lawrence Azzariti, one of the senior class presidents said, “We want to tell our grandkids about this when we are older–we want to tell them that we did something and that we were part of history.”