Daniel Casas said he stayed home from school Thursday to show Memphis what life would be like without immigrants.
A senior at Kingsbury High School, Casas was among hundreds of students across Tennessee who joined “A Day Without Immigrants,” a nationwide boycott organized in response to President Trump’s crackdown on immigration. His family and many of his friends participated too.
“We want to show that we make a difference,” said Casas, who was born in Mexico and has lived in Memphis for 17 years. “We contribute to society; we run stores and shops; we fill classrooms with students who want to work hard.”
It’s uncertain how many students participated across Tennessee, as districts were still compiling their absentee reports on Thursday. But based on conversations with students and educators, the boycott was felt in numerous schools in Memphis and Nashville, which have growing populations of immigrant students.
At Kingsbury, there were reports that about half of the student body stayed home.
The protest was also felt at Aurora College Academy, where about 30 percent of the Memphis charter school’s 275 students were absent.
“We knew there were rumblings of this, but to be missing this many students is a surprise for us,” said Principal Grant Monda, whose school population is about half Hispanic. “We’re close to a 96 percent attendance rate for any given day.”
Knowledge Academies High School, located in Nashville’s Antioch community, recorded absences for about half of its 200 students, though the impact was felt more in some classes than others. “We have one science class that usually has 20 students, but today it only had five,” said Martel Graham, director of the charter school.
Across America, the boycott’s effect was also visible at construction companies, restaurants and other businesses.
Some educators said they began hearing earlier this week about #adaywithoutimmigrants and tried to prepare.
In Nashville, Chief of Schools Sito Narcisse emailed all principals on Wednesday to remind them of the district’s policy related to unexcused absences. The bottom line: While Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools understands the uncertainty and confusion being experienced by immigrant families, the best place for students to be is still in school. Absences due to the protests will not be excused.
“While we respect the democratic right to participate in peaceful protest, our responsibility as a school district is to ensure students are in school receiving a great education every day,” Narcisse wrote. “For that reason, all students and staff are expected to be in school throughout the day on Thursday so that teaching and learning can continue.”
Officials with Shelby County Schools declined to comment on communications to their schools or how the Memphis district was handling the absences.
Graham said Nashville’s Knowledge Academies sent emails and robocalls to staff and students’ families in advance of the protest.
“We told them we will be here to educate any students who come into the building. If you don’t come to school, it will be counted as an absence and students are expected to make up their work,” Graham said.
While the boycott was scheduled for a single day, the event will continue to be part of the conversation about what immigrant students are going through in America. At Aurora Collegiate in Memphis, the principal plans to use a school-wide staff meeting on Friday to “talk about the importance of what today represented for a significant portion of our student population.”
“We want to have conversations with our students that make them feel safe and assure them that we will keep learning here regardless of whatever policies are created on a state or federal level,” Monday said. “We want them to know they are safe here.”
Casas, 18, said he hopes his absence Thursday was noticed — and that his school and district will be more vocal in supporting immigrants as a result.
“I hope that what comes from today’s protests is that the schools realize they can’t take us for granted,” he said, “and that they will listen to our voices.”