Angel Nwadibia and Leena Mohamed recalled when they joined thousands of other youth in D.C. in September to protest climate change.
During that time, the seniors at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt felt the adrenaline to continue this form of civic engagement activities. They wanted to attend another protest in December, but administrators said students would not only receive an unexcused absence, but also would not be permitted to make up any missed work or tests.
“We didn’t think it was fair,” Angel, 18, said. “We had enough of adults telling us what to do when it really wasn’t their future at stake.”
After attending and speaking at county council and school board meetings and help from a few adults with the Greenbelt Climate Action Network, the Prince George’s County school board approved a policy last month for students to receive excused absences for college visits, civic engagement and military-related activities.
Gauging by online attendant policies from the 24 school systems in Maryland, Prince George’s appears to be the first school system in the state to adopt an excused absence policy strictly for civic engagement activities.
The board’s vote doesn’t specify types of activities and number of excused absences a student can use, but it requests the public schools CEO, or superintendent, to formulate the policy and make any necessary changes.
A spokesperson for the school system said the policy remains under review. How the policy may look could be determined by how Prince George’s and other school systems will assess plans to formally reopen for the 2020-21 school year, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.
Across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the Fairfax County Public Schools board approved a policy for students in grades 7-12 with an option to receive an excused absence to participate in a civic activity.
According to the policy that went into effect in January, students can meet with an elected official, volunteer for a campaign, or any other work in the community not supervised by Fairfax County staff. Students must fill out a form and provide documentation on the activity with parental or guardian approval.
Critics of the policy claim students will miss classwork and grades would decrease.
Leena, who turns 18 next month, admitted she used sick days to participate in protests and other events. However, her higher education plans weren’t affected because she will attend the University of Chicago in the fall to study global studies with a double minor in human rights and inequality, social problems and change.
“Every adult who tells me that civic engagement can’t be done, that’s bull. It can be done,” Leena said.
Angel committed to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, to pursue a double major in political science and environmental studies.
The two Class of 2020 graduates found an ally in Raaheela Ahmed, who chairs the school board’s policy and governance committee.
Although work on updating the Student Attendance, Absence and Truant policy has been done for several months, it was amplified during the nationwide protests from the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The Eleanor Roosevelt students’ voices also helped show the policy’s importance.
“It was really in their hearts and minds to do something before they graduated,” Ahmed said. “A lot of the movements were advanced because of young people. Just understanding the role of young people in history, this is just an acknowledgment of that. This is good history for activism to thrive for the next generation.”
Both students realized they helped to make history for future Prince George’s students.
“We are seeing a rise of civic engagement across the country,” Angel said. “This is just one step for students in Prince George’s County to advocate for what is right without being punished for doing so.”
Leena simply said, “I just hope somebody continues to do the work.”