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Hanna and Kian Joulaee, twins and fifth graders at Public School 10 in Brooklyn, spent Wednesday night decorating signs and T-shirts for a rally in Red Hook set for Friday, a day of global youth protests for urgent action on climate change.
But on Thursday morning, their mother, Tannaz Fassihi, received an email from school administrators, explaining, “with a sense of disappointment,” that the optional field trip to the rally was canceled. The city’s Education Department ruled that employee participation would violate rules ensuring a “politically neutral learning environment,” as would schools that stage their own climate-action walkouts on school property.
Ms. Fassihi was crestfallen. As an Iranian-American who grew up in Tehran unable to freely express opinions, she said she had been excited to see her children’s school teaching civic engagement by example, along with teaching about climate science.
“It’s so upsetting — I’d been so proud and happy, we were talking about how every voice counts, about freedom of speech,” she said. “Besides, we’ve been talking about climate change not as a political issue, but as a scientific fact.”
Disappointment, frustration and last-minute changes of plans have rippled through school communities in recent days as the department’s ruling has forced the cancellation of similar chaperoned trips and activities. Among the loudest objections have come from Ms. Fassihi’s Brooklyn district, which includes Cobble Hill, Sunset Park, Park Slope, Carroll Gardens and Red Hook.
The district is home to many politically vocal, liberal parents — a mix of wealthy and modest-income families, many of whom had been relying on teacher chaperones to take children to the rally.
The kerfuffle comes just a week after New York City thrilled climate advocates by announcing that its 1.1 million public school students could skip school to attend the protests if they had their parents’ permission. The decision also underlines the difficulties in separating the politics of climate change from teaching about the science of it, even in liberal-leaning New York, and in a school system that is viewed by some experts as a national leader in integrating climate issues into the classroom.
That challenge is particularly fraught in a national political environment where many conservatives reject the consensus of climate scientists, and as the Trump administration has pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accords and rolled back environmental protection regulations.
The protests planned for Friday are inspired by Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish activist. Her weekly Friday school walkouts have spread to more than 100 countries.
Some critics of the city’s decision to allow excused absences for the protests — which it granted last year for students who participated in gun control protests in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. — have pointed out that it would be unlikely that New York officials would grant a similar reprieve for students who, for example, protested against abortion rights.
Oren Pizmony-Levy, a sociologist and associate professor at Teachers College at Columbia University who works with the Education Department on its sustainability program, said the ruling could keep children from poor families from attending the protest because many parents would be unable to leave work or hire a caregiver to accompany the children.
The paradox, he said, is that poorer and marginalized groups are often most affected by disasters brought on by climate change, like the recent hurricanes that struck Puerto Rico and the Bahamas.
“There is a double inequality here: Not only they can’t engage with this protest and learn from the experience, they are also going to suffer more from climate change,” he said. “To me it’s problematic.”
At the Park Slope Education Complex at Middle School 88, which has enough low-income students to qualify for federal funding, four science teachers had planned to take 40 seventh graders from Brooklyn to the main rally in Manhattan. One of those teachers, Lynn Shon, said that many of the children who had planned to go were learning about climate issues for the first time.
“Every single one of them has told me they can’t go,” Ms. Shon said. “The ones who can are the ones whose families had already gotten them engaged in climate at home.”
So instead, Ms. Shon said, the teachers will hold a climate-action session on Friday where students can brainstorm how to help climate refugees and communities affected by recent storms.
The Education Department has shared resources with schools to help them plan appropriate climate events in school on Friday.
The guidelines about staff participation are the same as ones issued before the school-shooting protests last year; staff members are allowed to participate in rallies outside school hours.
“Our students learn the importance of civic engagement in and outside the classroom, and we expect many students will be participating in the youth-led climate strike tomorrow with parental consent,” the department said in a statement. “This is about students raising their voice. We’ve sent clear guidance to schools on procedures for tomorrow and we’re prepared for a smooth, safe day.”
The restrictions are less problematic for high schools, where students are old enough to safely travel alone to events. At Beacon High School in Manhattan, teachers had planned to accompany students. But now, 40 parent chaperones will accompany the approximately 1,000 students — two-thirds of the school.
Charter schools are not governed by the guidelines. At KIPP NYC College Prep High School in the Bronx, teachers still planned to attend the Manhattan rally with students from the Environmental Club.
“Joining in the climate strike is such an amazing opportunity for a real-life, teachable moment,” Kimberly Elicker, a math teacher there, said. “It’s an inspiration to see so many of our students organizing and raising their voices to demand change.”
As for Hanna and Kian, Ms. Fassihi was trying to get the day off to take the twins to Red Hook or Manhattan. Hanna had prepared a shirt that read, in wobbly Magic Marker, “Climate change you must not ignore, or the future may be no more.” On Thursday afternoon Ms. Fassihi was still pondering how to break the news to her children that the school trip was off. She decided to wait and see how teachers framed it.
“It may also be a lesson,” she said, “that sometimes you have to fight to get heard, and it’s not always easy.”
Eliza Shapiro contributed reporting.