Miami-Dade Public School students demand excused absences for global climate strikes

A Coral Gables High School junior is calling for Miami-Dade to excuse absences for students who attend global climate strikes through a petition.

More than 1000 people have signed a petition titled, “If Our Parents Support Us, Why Won’t You? Excused Absences for Student Climate Strikes!” It is directed at Superintendent Alberto Carvalho as well as the school board.

Samantha Gazda, 16, posted the petition and is a leader for the GenCLEO Youth Empowerment Movement, part of the CLEO Institute, a nonprofit advocacy organization headquartered in Miami. The group encourages youth leaders to work with local politicians on climate issues.

One organization, Fridays for Future Miami, holds weekly strikes every Friday from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. in front of Miami Beach City Hall.

Gazda, also the head organizer for Fridays for Future Miami, said the weekly actions are held so everyone can be included. Bigger, coordinated strikes are done earlier in the day.

Gazda said New York, Portland and Boston are setting the standard for what Miami-Dade should do. “Miami is ground zero for the climate crisis, and it would only make sense for us to join the other school districts in encouraging civil engagement.”

Last month, the official Twitter page for New York City Public Schools tweeted out that students would be excused for the Sept. 20 protest as long as they had parental consent. This gave a pass to 1.1 million students. Mayor Bill de Blasio backed the school walkouts.

In Boston, public schools gave excused absences if a student’s parent wrote a note. Most students in Portland received excused absences for attending the Friday strike as long as they communicated with their teachers ahead of time.

Miami-Dade has no similar policy. But in response to activists’ calls for action, MDCPS unveiled environment-focused initiatives in August such as installing solar panels and removing plastic straws in cafeterias.

In regard to the global climate strike, Miami-Dade County Public Schools spokesperson Jackie Calzadilla released a statement that read: “Any student wishing to leave campus during the school day must follow School Board policy and be signed out appropriately by a parent or guardian. Such absences may not be considered excused.”

Brandon Hudspeth, 25, an organizer for Fridays for Future, has been traveling to Miami from Chicago for the past year because more help is needed in South Florida.

“The question here in Miami is: What districts are going to approve these strikes as excused absences or even give them the field-trip status so that it’s more endorsed?” Hudspeth said.

Schools providing transportation and chaperones would encourage turnout and make the strike safer, he said.

Nicole Gazo is a senior at Miami Palmetto Senior High School. She attempted to get her school to participate in the Sept. 20 strike but was rebuffed.

“They love it, they supported it, they understand that it’s my future and it had become a field trip, but sadly the district didn’t feel comfortable allowing us to go because they said it would threaten our safety,” she said.

Gazo said that the larger purpose is to call attention to the issue.

“We live in a reality where students have to sacrifice our education to make our voices heard,” she said. “At the end of the day, why are we sitting in school, studying for a future that’s not guaranteed?”

Broward schools are being targeted by a similar petition. Last month, South Broward High School senior Elijah Ruby was suspended for distributing flyers for the Sept. 20 Global Youth Climate Strike. After his story got national media attention, he received his prom and homecoming privileges back and is able to go back to school, but his suspension is still on the record.

Ruby has been trying to get schools in his district to allow excused absences and even make the rallies a school field trip.

“The encouraging thing about Broward, purely due to the [media highlighting my suspension], is that I was able to get a meeting from Superintendent Robert Runcie, and at this point, nothing is concrete, but at the very least we’re having a dialogue so there’s a potential that something can get done where students are allowed to be off of school,” Ruby said.

The next major climate strike in Miami will take place Nov. 29 at Miami Beach City Hall.

Bianca Marcof is a journalism major at Florida International University. She is interested in multimedia reporting, but her favorite thing to do is write.