Your Starkly Different Perspectives on Omicron

The one common denominator: frustration.

Man wearing a mask
Nick Paleologos / Bloomberg / Getty; The Atlantic

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As the Omicron stage of the pandemic wears on, many of you are anxious, frustrated, and incredulous or even despairing as to how others are behaving––but you’re not of like mind. Some of you believe that the response to the new variant is overwrought, while others think that it is underwhelming.

“How should America’s colleges, high schools, and elementary schools handle the winter surge of COVID-19 cases associated with the Omicron variant?” I asked earlier this week. “What do you like most or least about how your educational institution is handling the pandemic? What local details of interest can you share about how matters are being handled near you?”

Your answers encompassed starkly different perspectives. While I don’t know if any of them will win converts, they’re worth showcasing, if only to better understand how others are feeling and why.

Jenny from Texas says everyone near her is struggling:

I live in Houston. I am a mom to two teens and a Special Education Teacher / Learning Interventionist. We are all vaccinated and boosted except for our 14-year-old and we are waiting to speak with his pediatrician, but expect to get him boosted soon. It is a literal sh$t show here in Texas with everyone all over the map. Panicked vaccinated people with a big ole boot load of people who act like this thing does not exist. What is not disputed is that this is the hardest thing we have had to navigate as parents or teachers.  

My children are in private schools that are mask-optional (can’t even) and I work in a therapeutic setting with children who literally can’t learn if they can’t see my face or hear my sounds or see my facial expressions. Balancing the safety of my family as well as my precious students is exhausting, not to mention the tireless effort to keep everyone in school.

The mental health of our children is being sacrificed in my opinion by our leaders who keep businesses and schools from making mask mandates which would help stop the spread AND KEEP THEM IN SCHOOL. I am disappointed in our Nation. We need to come together and we need to do it yesterday! I think we need a unified national message and one that honestly admits that we are following the science and adapting our response.

Nola’s school district is not following the science:

Our school superintendent sent home a letter stating that every child will be receiving a new mask. Unfortunately, after receiving the masks we found that they were fashion masks and contained a tag that read “Not intended to prevent or eliminate exposure to any disease, infection, or communicable disease.” This is a school district with about 200 children per grade. That is a lot of useless masks. Perhaps they could have bought some surgical masks to have available. This was definitely not the best decision.

Ryan, an elementary-school teacher in Boston, reached out to vent his frustration and despair:

At this moment, about a third of my students and a third of our total staff are in quarantine. None of them, to my knowledge, are actually physically ill. The amount of legitimate illness I have seen wouldn’t even warrant a “boy, nasty cold going around, huh?” comment at the water cooler in our pre-COVID era. Yes, there are some coughs. Yes, there are some sniffles. But there have always been and always will be coughs and sniffles in a room full of 25 seven-year-olds. And the disruptions caused by avoiding this radar-blip of illness have been more disruptive than anything I have ever experienced in my career.

I sent home three perfectly healthy children who tested positive. They will miss a week and a half of school, sitting at home on the couch in near-perfect health. When I gave them the news, one little girl looked as though she’d been given a terminal cancer diagnosis; the other two just seemed confused. They have no symptoms. The likelihood that they develop serious illness is as close to zero as likelihoods get in this life. It all seems like such a pointless waste of time, resources, stigma, and emotional energy. Our Sisyphean efforts at control aren’t even in the service of avoiding anything worth avoiding. At this point, it seems that we are just valiantly fighting COVID as a matter of pure inertia, like WWII soldiers on deserted islands, unaware that the threat has passed and the war is over.

The level of precaution and concern is so far out of alignment with the current level of physical risk that I fear we are going to be stuck in this prison of irrational pandemic fear forever. I honestly can’t see a moment when a critical majority of people relax enough to say “yes, I feel okay. I don’t think I need to let COVID-avoidance measures dominate every facet of my life. I don’t think I need to police everyone else’s behavior. I think I am safe enough.” Everybody is infected, but nobody is sick; everyone is terrified, but nothing is terrible. The whole thing feels like a cruel farce, but ruthlessly stripped of comedy.

The emotions that increasingly dominate my life inside and outside of school are hopelessness and despair. Hopeless that the risk tolerances of the people who dominate our local politics will ever seem reasonable to me, hopeless that the teacher’s union of whom I am a due-paying member will ever stop fighting for ever-more impossible levels of “safety.” Despair that normal life might never return. Despair that I might have to wear this goddamn fucking mask forever. Despair that my daughter has spent most of her life locked in COVIDlife. Despair that COVIDlife might be the only life there is anymore.

Ethan thinks the institution of higher education he attends has gone too far:

I’m so blown away by the new policies of Johns Hopkins University. I’m a middle-aged master’s degree student about to embark on my final course in JHU’s creative writing program, arguably one of the top 6 or 10 in the country. For two years I’ve endured strictly online learning supplemented by Zoom—not an altogether bad thing but definitely not what I signed up for. Regardless of that, JHU’s *new* policy is that for any student to gain admittance to campus, be it for class, to pay a bill, to meet a professor, or what have you, not only does the student have to show proof of having had the Covid vaccine … but *now* all students must *also* have the flu shot to gain admittance to campus.

When I read that a month or two ago I truly couldn’t believe what I was reading; as if the nanny state, percolating and growing since the mid to late 80s, hadn’t become pervasive enough as of late, now we’re trying to control simple colds and flus? I honestly don’t get a flu shot typically, maybe once every six or seven years if it’s convenient, simply because I’m in good shape and don’t get sick much, but more importantly because catching a cold or getting the flu is part of living life. Furthermore and perhaps most importantly, it really isn’t a very worrisome aspect to living life on earth.

Catherine is similarly critical of her son’s college and believes that its overcautiousness creates perverse moral incentives:

My son is a sophomore at a small college 3 hours from Boston. On Sunday he flew from LAX to Logan, having made plans in advance to be picked up by a friend who was going to drive him to campus. He was really looking forward to the time with this great guy.  

When my son landed at Logan he had a new text from an old high school friend he had hung out with the day before who had taken a Covid test Sunday morning and tested positive. When my son’s friend came to pick him up at Logan, my son disclosed that he had been exposed the day before, and his friend was unwilling to let my son get into his car. He knew they were all going to be tested immediately when they got to school (even though they were asymptomatic, had taken a negative test 2 days before, and were all double vaccinated with boosters mandated) and he did not want to risk testing positive in case my son was a carrier (because then he would have to endure 5 days of brutally lonely quarantine). So this otherwise kind, good young man LEFT my son stranded at Logan with no ride, no plans, no local family, no way of getting to school (too young to rent a car, no public transportation, etc.). Honestly I was a little shocked.

My son did not blame him and I don’t either, given the potential consequences, but I feel like we need to step back and recognize that this is not human interaction we should be encouraging. This was a horrible way to treat a friend who could possibly have a virus that has basically zero chance of killing these young adults. If the irrational school policies did not exist I am sure the friend would have said “I am not worried about possibly getting a cold—let’s ride with the windows down—it’s fine.” Meanwhile 3 of my son’s college classmates died by suicide the first year (out of less than 500).

Kyle is a high-school student from a suburb of Salt Lake City. Here’s his assessment of recent weeks:

I feel like my school district’s administrative board has adopted a philosophy of “out of sight, out of mind.” Virtually nothing has been said of Omicron by them, and I am concerned but unsurprised. Utah alone reported 7,200 COVID cases on Wednesday, January 5 (a state record for new reported cases in one day) … but it almost seems as if the school board is reluctant to do anything out of fear of backlash. Virtual learning was academically feasible for me, but I’m not going to lie, it was also incredibly emotionally draining. I’m not sure if my rigorous workload this year could handle a transition back online. And while we are certainly better prepared to access school resources and assignments online, I struggle to imagine my high school student body embracing a return to online education with much, if any, enthusiasm. Put plainly, we are stuck.

Khara writes from Lancaster County, Nebraska, where she believes masking measures to be too lax:

Our health department has just moved our “risk dial” to “red.” Our university and public schools require masks … Our health department let our mask mandate expire Dec. 23—the same day they announced the local arrival of Omicron. This week they conceded that the Omicron wave is here and just getting started, while announcing no plans to reinstate a public mask requirement. I know everyone is tired of it all, but choosing this moment to let our mask mandate expire defies everything we’ve been told all along.

Juanita believes that COVID deaths are getting too much emphasis:

In Ontario, Canada, all of the elementary & high school kids were supposed to return to online learning. Just as the decision was made on Dec 30, 2021, a few days later the plan was reversed. While I have compassion for not knowing what path to take, at some point it would be great to see leadership that leads to us using information beyond the physical impacts of COVID. What about mental health? What about all those who lost lives due to surgeries and procedures put on hold? What about poverty on so many people who have lost jobs and businesses? Mainstream media continues to focus on “death tolls” and numbers of people who have COVID and spends less time listing numbers of people who’ve had it and are doing well. What about listing the survival rates instead? I know plenty of people who have had COVID and they are all doing well. Ethically, I think it’s great that not everyone agrees that they should get a vaccine––it shows that we live in a democracy. It concerns me when public and educational institutions create vaccine policies that eliminate a voice in perspective & debate.

Whereas Lana believes COVID deaths are getting too little emphasis:

In Western MA, it’s basically full steam ahead and damn the consequences. The exception is daycare—which is extremely diverse in how they handle cases. When it comes to outbreaks, some close, some don’t. I have a three-year-old at one of the more cautious centers. They close the classroom each time there is a single infection; the whole school closes when there is a major outbreak. Testing and quarantine rules are determined by the town’s board of health. It has changed each time my child has been deemed exposed by a child in her class. She’s been out of daycare for the last 3 weeks with the exception of a half-day Monday before the school closed again. It is what it is. I am still paying for the weeks she’s not there. I don’t have a lot of other options.

This is the new normal. The new normal, as many conservative friends think it should be, is going back to the old normal. It isn’t adapting by taking precautions or making shifts in behavior. It’s ignoring the fact we are trying to live through a pandemic. My job doesn’t really care about Covid anymore. All employees are to be in the office full time pitting mostly moms with small kids and Covid positive employees with everyone else because they “get” to work from home when there is no child care or they have to quarantine. Compassion and empathy fatigue are real. No one seems to care about anyone else.

Few people actually care about how the kids are doing. Their status is pawn, not human intricately interwoven through society. Children don’t live in a bubble as many news articles are written. You quoted an article where a source mentioned mental damage to kids who have to distance at school and can’t sit right next to their friends at lunch. It’s as if one skims over consequences of not distancing, such as the damage of losing a parent or a grandparent from viral transmission from their children. Kids are amazingly resilient and more adaptable to change than adults. But some changes are traumatic (e.g. loss of a loved one) and some less so (seating arrangements at lunch). I have to wonder if the trauma invoked by adults as communicators on behalf of kids is mostly projected from their own adult discomfort. Not masking children is an example. Most young kids I know have no issue wearing a mask. Many in our circle forget it’s even on.

Michael, 70, is a college professor who has a mild case of COVID-19. He is happy to be returning to in-person instruction once he recovers:

I teach at a local university here in Connecticut, where we currently have a pretty significant surge. Hospitalizations have reached a pretty high peak (though less critical care than in the past) and the positivity rate is slightly north of 20%. Which doesn’t include me or many I know who used home tests so are not in the count. Many of our local universities have elected to start the semester online for the stated reason of “an abundance of caution.” Happily, mine has not, we will be starting in person. There is a requirement that everyone on campus has gotten a booster in addition to the previous vaccination rule, and everyone must wear surgical masks. I didn’t love teaching in a mask last semester and I am not sure I will be any fonder of it this semester. However, I do think the college experience in person is so much more powerful than online (which I did for a year, ghastly) so I think from a cost-benefit analysis, it is the right thing to do and I fully support it. I am sure other faculty may feel differently.

And Jason is grateful for the small businesses in his community:

What local details of interest can I share about how matters are being handled near me? Local, independent pharmacies are important! The little pharmacy, Asthenis Pharmacy, down the block has people lined up outside every day for testing, shots, and boosters. There’s no CVS or Walgreens in the immediate area. And coffee shops matter! Being able to walk in and buy a drink and food has provided a small human touch. There’s no “need” to stand in line to buy a coffee, except that socially we need to peoplewatch. It’s amazing and heartening to watch these businesses go through multiple permutations to address the pandemic. Decent places before COVID, made for decent places during COVID.

Thanks for all your emails, and see you next week.