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University of Montana

The University of Montana campus.

Both the University of Montana and Missoula County Public Schools plan to accommodate students participating in a weeklong climate change protest set to begin Friday.

The Missoula Climate Strike will begin Sept. 20 and run through the 27th and include rallies, discussions and educational events on climate change on campus and around the city. It’s part of the Global Climate Strike, in which students around the globe plan to walk out of classes to demand action on climate change. Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg started skipping class to protest climate change last year; millions of students in hundreds of cities are expected to take part in the upcoming strike.

UM faculty will be able to reschedule classes and excuse students so they can participate. They may also assign alternative work for absent students or incorporate Climate Strike events into their curricula.

“Faculty may choose to excuse students from class to take part in one or more events,” in keeping with UM attendance policy, wrote Provost Jon Harbor in a Monday email to faculty.

With their department chair’s permission, faculty members may also cancel classes, and staff may take leave with their department chair’s approval.

Professor Steve Schwarze, who directs UM’s climate change studies program, said he appreciated the administration’s response. He said UM and the climate change studies program concurred on climate change's importance.

“I was really pleased with how the university has approached this issue,” he said.

Sophomore Adison Thorp, co-founder and vice president of UM’s Climate Response Club, also appreciated the university’s handling of the protest. Her instructors, she said, “have all said, ‘it’s your decision.’ They support students in (their) decision.”

Missoula County Public Schools, meanwhile, is allowing students to take leave for Climate Strike events with parental permission. While schools will be open as normal, “our teachers, support staff, and administrators won’t discourage or resist student efforts to participate in the climate strike events,” Superintendent Rob Watson wrote in an email to families Sunday. “We also can’t encourage student participation in such events.” He said both school board policy and Montana state law prohibit school district employees from political speech on the job.

He wrote that high school students who choose to leave campus for Climate Strike events must be excused by a parent or be marked absent; middle school students must be signed out by a parent or guardian. Per district policy, students with an excused absence will be able to make up work they miss.

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The nation’s largest public school district has taken a similar line. New York City Public Schools, with approximately 1.1 million students, has allowed excused absences for students to take part in the strike.

In Schwarze’s view, that tactic is warranted for students facing down the threat of climate change.

“The important part about this particular moment is that students and young people are taking a much greater role in trying to demonstrate the very urgent need for action on climate change,” he said. “So I think it’s legitimate if students ... decide that participating in a strike is more important” than class.

“Strikes are never about completely following rules,” he pointed out. “The whole point of a strike is, some rules are not working.”

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