At McGlone Academy in northeast Denver, Thursday began with one minute of silence during morning announcements. Some classrooms in the heavily Latino school had just six or eight students. Staff members wore stickers that read, “I stand with Immigrants #togetherwearestronger.”
The strong sentiments — and empty seats — were evident at schools across Colorado as communities took part in a nationwide protest called a “Day Without Immigrants.”
Several districts reported a spike in absences as students joined with others across the country in sending a message about immigrants’ contributions to society. Staff absences were higher at some schools as well. One school district sought to dispel rumors that district staff were urging students to stay home because of anticipated federal immigration enforcement actions.
Denver Public Schools deputy superintendent Susana Cordova alerted staff on Wednesday to the potential for widespread absences, noting that word of the protest has “has been all over Spanish-language media and social media.”
“In DPS, we want all of our students and staff to feel welcome every single day and we believe that the best place for students is in school,” Cordova wrote. “We know that, in many of our schools, a large majority of our students and some staff members come from different parts of the world. Please continue to show support to all of our students and their families.”
Attendance in DPS schools was down about five percent districtwide, although district officials cautioned that those numbers were preliminary and some schools saw many absences.
Jeffco Public Schools officials said districtwide numbers wouldn’t be available until Friday, but confirmed that handful of schools experienced large-scale absences.
More than 40 percent of students at both Jefferson and Alameda Jr./Sr. high schools were absent, and about 30 percent of students at Emory Elementary were absent. The schools have significant Latino student populations.
Absences were up districtwide in Boulder Valley schools, with about 91 percent of students attending compared to the usual 95 percent. The same was true in Greeley District 6, where attendance was at 86 percent Thursday, compared to 95 percent the day before.
Westminster Public Schools — a district where about 85 percent of the 9,600 students are minorities and almost 40 percent are English learners — reported student absence rates were at about 35 percent compared to 10 percent Wednesday.
Westminster High School and two middle schools had the highest percent of students missing. One elementary school, Fairview Elementary, reported attendance rates of 67 percent, down from 96 percent the day before.
Steve Saunders, a spokesman for the Westminster district, said district officials sent a notice to the district’s leadership team Wednesday about a possible spike in absences.
“As a matter of policy, we encourage students to be in class every day possible, but we will not be proactively telling families how to respond to this form of peaceful protest,” said the letter signed by superintendent Pam Swanson.
Nancy Hernandez of the Westminster Public Schools Foundation, who works with undocumented students in the district, said it’s important for all districts, especially those with many students of color, to take the extra step of sending messages to their families.
“Silence just makes people anxious,” Hernandez said. “It makes families wonder.”
At Kenton Elementary School in Aurora, emotions were running high Thursday because of the school’s personal connection to the story of Jeanette Vizguerra, a Denver mother who has received national media attention for her decision to take sanctuary in a Denver church to avoid deportation. Last year, her children attended Kenton.
About 185 students of the school’s 580 students missed class Thursday, up from a normal of about 30 absences per day, principal Heather Woodward said. Woodward said she believes families wouldn’t pull their kids out of school if they didn’t feel it was important.
“The value of education in our community is extremely huge,” Woodward said. “They totally understand learning is important.”
Aurora Public School officials said district-wide attendance rates would not be available until Friday.
A note sent from Boulder Valley School district officials to families ahead of the protest provides a window into how quickly fear and misinformation are spreading. The email, with the subject line “Important news – false rumor,” read:
“Please be aware that there was a rumor today that has been communicated to local media that some BVSD school administrators were advising immigrant students to stay home tomorrow, February 16, out of concern for a possible immigration enforcement action on Thursday. This rumor is false. No BVSD administrator has advised any student not to attend school tomorrow.”
Other school district officials were less enthusiastic about the protest. Greeley spokeswoman Theresa Myers said the district supports its immigrant and migrant families but was unhappy students were included.
“We understand organizers are trying to show the impact of immigrants on our society, but really, only our students suffer when they are kept out of schools,” he wrote via email. “That is unfortunate,”
Myers said it was left up to principals whether student absences resulting from the protest would be counted as excused or unexcused. She said that she expected most to be counted as unexcused.
At one charter school in northwest Denver, STRIVE Prep at Lake, teachers incorporated the protest into lessons the class was already working on.
Burgess LePage, an English teacher at the school, was teaching students about historical documents and the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycotts. Students compared and annotated a copy of a leaflet that was used at the time to flyers passed out for Thursday’s protest.
“You could hear a moment of when there were these nods of understanding,” Le Page said.
Students who showed up to school, about 10 of her 29 students, in general said they supported the protest but didn’t want to put their education on hold for it.
The lesson will continue Friday as the students who skipped class return.
Although McGlone Academyin Denver’s Montbello neighborhood was half empty Thursday, some of the students who did attend — mostly fifth- and sixth-graders — chose to protest by wearing school-provided stickers reading, “Today I am protesting through SILENCE.”
Principal Sara Gips Goodall said she’d visited the school’s older students the day before to tell them about the silent protest option and also shared information with their parents.
By not using their voices, she told them, “That’s a day without you as an immigrant.”
Gips Goodall said the various displays of protest and solidarity were both empowering and sad. It was heart-warming to see non-immigrant students don silent protest stickers in unity with their immigrant classmates, she said.
At the same time, there was a void. One third-grader asked, “Where are all my friends?” she said.
“We’re missing our kids and families,” she said, “and our classrooms are not the same without them.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred incorrectly to McGlone Elementary School. It is McGlone Academy.