US School System to Give Students a Day Off For Civic Activities

07 January 2020

One of the largest public school systems in the United States is about to launch a new policy. Later this month, students attending Fairfax County Public Schools, FCPS, can take time off from school for civic activities.

Fairfax County is in northern Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. Beginning January 21, FCPS will give students one excused absence each school year for what it calls "civic engagement activities." Students must be in grades seven to 12, meaning most are 12 to 18 years old.

FCPS School Board Chair Karen Corbett Sanders told VOA the idea for the policy comes from a rise in student activism. After 17 people died in a shooting at a Florida high school in 2018, students around the country protested gun violence. Some of the demonstrations were in Fairfax County.

FILE: Participants take part in the March for Our Lives Rally in Washington, DC on March 24, 2018.
FILE: Participants take part in the March for Our Lives Rally in Washington, DC on March 24, 2018.

Corbett Sanders notes that at the time, school officials wanted to give students a chance to express their concerns.

"We gave flexibility to students to have their voices heard and to express their concerns about safety and security in their schools."

There is no defined list of approved activities; the choice is up to the students. However, they might be participating in marches, sit-in protests or taking time to talk with local or national lawmakers.

Corbett Sanders says living just outside Washington means that many FCPS students are knowledgeable about national politics.

But she says students are not limited to going into the city to become involved in the civic process.

"We have students who go down to Richmond, which is where our state legislature is. We have students who have been engaged in climate change rallies here in Fairfax County. And so I think what we're seeing is that young people in general want to be engaged in this civic process, the policy process."

Corbett Sanders says she has already heard from parents who say their children plan to attend the yearly "March for Life" in Washington. The event is held to protest the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a woman's right to end her pregnancy.

In years past, if students attended the March for Life, they would have been given an "unexcused absence."

The school system's new policy ties together action and what students learn in their classrooms. Civic engagement is something that is "emphasized in government classes," notes Corbett Sanders.

The FCPS policy may find a supporter in U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. In a year-end report on the federal court system, Roberts called for an increase in civic awareness in the country. "We have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside," he said.

Meira Levinson is a professor of education at Harvard University. The policy is a good idea, she told VOA, because when students grow up, they will have civic rights and responsibilities.

"And so this policy is good at recognizing that and the importance of preparing young people for that and of honoring their civic participation."

But she adds giving students just one day off to engage in civic action is only a start. It "cannot be the only thing" that they do to support civic learning.

"They also need to provide coursework, they need to support student activism in schools and they need to provide examples of people who are civically engaged in all sorts of ways."

Levinson thinks other school systems around the country will likely approve similar policies.

However, there is no sign yet that American students will demonstrate as often as Sweden's Greta Thunberg, who just turned 17 years old. In 2018, she started calling attention to climate change by protesting outside the Swedish parliament instead of going to school. She has called on world leaders to take action on climate change and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.

Greta Thunberg's action led other students to protest climate change around the world.

I'm Anne Ball.

Anne Ball wrote this story. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

civic – adj. of or relating to a city or town or the people who live there

excused absence – n. officially allowed to be absent, or away from school.

engagement – n. the act or state of being involved with something

flexibility – adj. easily changed

participate – v. to be involved with others in doing something : to take part in an activity or event with others

rallies – n. plural a public meeting to support or oppose someone or something

fallen by the wayside – phrase. failure to continue, drop out