I’m Not Afraid of COVID-19. I’m Afraid of School Shootings.

I’m eager to get back to the classroom, but my fear is overcoming my excitement.

Photo of students in a school-shooting drill
Frederic J. Brown / AFP / Getty; Mike Stocker / Sun Sentinel / Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Vedika Jawa is a high school senior from Fremont, California.

As my virtual junior year of high school came to an end this past June, my Fremont, California, district announced its plan to fully reopen schools in person for the coming academic year. My senior year will be filled with uncertainty, but there’s one thing I’m sure about: I’m eager to get back to the classroom. Before COVID-19, I dreaded waking up at seven in the morning to drag myself into school every day. Now, 17 months and a million Zoom classes later, I have a newfound appreciation for learning in person, no matter how early I have to be there.

But as the first day of school approaches, I can’t help being a little hesitant—and not because of the coronavirus. Before the pandemic, school shootings occurred at an alarming rate; a 2019 CNN investigation found that 180 schools had experienced a school shooting in the previous decade alone. There were fewer high-profile shootings while cities around the country were shut down, yes, but gun violence continued to plague the nation. Nearly 4,000 more Americans were killed in gun homicides or non-suicide-related shootings in 2020 than in 2019. And I’m worried that once we all start going back to class, mass shootings will return to our schools.

I remember sitting with my family watching the news in February 2018, after a long day of school, and hearing about the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. I remember lying in my bed that night, waiting to fall asleep, thinking, What if this happened in my school? What if this happened in my friend’s school? I remember walking out of my eighth-grade science class later that week, standing in silence with the rest of my classmates to honor the lives of the 17 innocent teenagers who died that day.

As much as I long to return to school—to see all my friends again, to play basketball, and to finally meet my teachers in person—I find my fear overcoming my excitement. I worry that one day the school experiencing a mass shooting won’t be in Parkland, Florida, or Newtown, Connecticut, but in my city. I used to think this was a fear that lived only in my head, but after talking with many of my peers and even seeing some of them express their fear on social media, I’ve come to realize that countless teenagers feel the same way.

From a strictly statistical standpoint, COVID-19 poses a greater threat to young people than school shootings do. According to the CDC, since January 2020, 354 children have died from COVID-19, and thousands more have gotten sick. In 2019, the last year when schools were fully in person, there were 25 school shootings and five students died, according to Education Week. But fear isn’t driven by statistics. It’s an emotion driven by control. We can control, to a significant degree, our exposure to the coronavirus. We can wear masks; we can social distance; we can get vaccinated. But there is nothing students can do to protect ourselves from a school shooting. The responsibility for this danger lies solely in the hands of our government.

When the pandemic started, politicians and public-health officials immediately sprang into action: mandating shutdowns, preaching the benefits of mask wearing, and, when vaccines became available, urging and incentivizing constituents to get their shots. We have seen what our government is capable of doing to protect lives during this global health crisis. So the question remains: Why is coming together to take action on gun control so difficult? Why can we not act on this nationwide epidemic that has been affecting populations of all ages, not just for one or two years, but for more than a decade? The United States is one of the world’s most developed countries, yet we continuously fail to address one of our most urgent and life-threatening problems. More than 50 percent of eligible young people voted in 2020, many of them because they saw Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as leaders who could make a genuine change regarding issues that were important to them. One of those issues is gun violence, including school shootings. It’s time that our leaders are held accountable for the promises they made to keep us safe.

Gun violence has been an issue in this country for far too long. Parents shouldn’t have to worry about sending their child to school, and children shouldn’t have to worry about going to school. Zoom classes left me exhausted last year, but at least I didn’t have to turn on the news and hear about another school shooting. Now that kids across the country are returning to in-person classes, we can’t wait for another mass shooting to occur and then implement these solutions; they must be implemented now. As Ezra Klein wrote the day of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School: “Talking about how to stop mass shootings in the aftermath of a string of mass shootings isn’t ‘too soon.’ It’s much too late.”