Last semester was bad, but this one has been worse. The pandemic—and the United States’ haphazard response to it—has presented parents and teachers with unpleasant choice after unpleasant choice when it comes to kids’ education. But even by pandemic standards, the highly contagious Omicron variant has brought a special level of chaos to schools.
This month, teens across the country have been adding their voices to the debate over in-person schooling, which has so far been dominated by adults—by parents, teachers, and politicians. Last week, students from more than 20 schools in New York City participated in a walkout, and students in Boston, Chicago, and Seattle did the same. Many of them feel frustrated and unsafe. Like teachers, “we’re the ones encountering the problem every single day because we’re coming to school and we’re around a bunch of people, some who don’t wear masks [and] some who do,” says Gianna Pizarro, a 15-year-old sophomore at Burncoat High School, in Worcester, Massachusetts who participated in a walkout.
Many students have been exasperated by their experiences at school lately. Eliana Smith, a 17-year-old senior at Cedar Ridge High School, near Austin, Texas, says that it’s been common during the Omicron wave for six to 10 students to be absent from a 30-person class—she assumes because of COVID-19. Her school has a mask mandate, but she told me that many of her fellow students simply don’t wear one. And if she’s been exposed at school to someone who later tests positive for COVID-19, she said, she hasn’t been notified—she finds out only if she or a friend pieces it together.
Tiernee Pitts, a 17-year-old classmate of Smith’s, told me that many teachers have been absent lately as well, to the point that she feels her learning has suffered. In one recent class period taught by a substitute, she did homework for another subject while other students stared at their phones. “It’s essentially just babysitting,” she said.
Last week, Smith and Pitts, along with their friend Asmita Lehther, an 18-year-old senior at nearby Round Rock High School, started a petition requesting more coronavirus protections in their district and organized a walkout: Yesterday, students across Round Rock Independent School District left their schools in protest.
The students are requesting, among other things, that their schools notify them if they’ve been exposed to a COVID-positive classmate, enforce the mask mandate, and provide KN95 or N95 masks to students (the district currently provides surgical masks). They also want the option to voluntarily go remote until those demands are met. “Regarding the students’ concerns—we share them,” a spokesperson for the district told me. She said that the district “simply [does] not have the manpower” to do contract tracing for every student and that enforcing the mask mandate is difficult because families can request exemptions from it and because the district is in a legal dispute with the state over the governor’s ban on district-level mask mandates. Furthermore, she noted, state law caps the percentage of students in a district who can go remote at a given time.
Taking an entire school remote involves difficult trade-offs. For instance, a conservative student group at Georgetown’s law school recently criticized the school’s decision to start its spring semester virtually, arguing that “motivation, mental health, socialization, and the quality of education provided are suffering.” The high-school students organizing walkouts aren’t proposing that their schools go remote indefinitely, but rather that schools and students be able to do so temporarily, while case counts are higher than at any previous point in the pandemic. They’re concerned for their own safety, but also worried about bringing the virus home to a family member. Mia Dabney, a 17-year-old who helped organize a student rally in Seattle, told me that she has multiple relatives with asthma. “It overwhelms me thinking about my grandparents and my family and making sure they’re protected,” she said.
What’s more, a couple of students I spoke with said that they knew of classmates who had tested positive but gone to school anyway, and that students have been on their own in determining whether they’ve been exposed. They effectively have had to work as their own informal contact-tracing teams, asking around about peers’ test results and monitoring social media for indications of COVID cases. Pizarro said that she only discovered she had been sitting near a COVID-positive student when she later learned from a friend about his status; she said the school didn’t inform her. (Her school didn’t respond to my request for comment.)
Many students are also uncomfortable with crowded cafeterias. Lunchtime means sharing an indoor space with maskless classmates. “You’re in one closed room and there’s a thousand kids sitting there,” Lehther, from Round Rock High School, said. She and her fellow organizers are asking that the district provide outdoor dining options at all of its schools. (Currently, they’re available at some.)
In some cities, students’ actions seem to have caught administrators’ attention. The chancellor of New York City’s schools offered to meet with student organizers after their walkout last week. So far, though, one of the most reliable effects of a walkout seems to be that it begets more walkouts. Students I spoke with said that their walkouts were inspired by the organizing they saw earlier this month in New York City, Oakland, and Chicago. And momentum seems to be continuing: While I was on Zoom with the teens from Texas, one of them got a text from a friend who lived in a nearby city. She had some questions about planning something similar in her own school district.