Education Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: Students not safe in school

I’m terrified to go to school. That’s really nothing new — I’m from a generation raised on school shooter drills, told that a strap on a door would protect us and that if all else failed, our books could be shields. Expect the worst-case scenario; any learning environment could be a war zone in a matter of seconds. This has been my public school experience. COVID-19 is a worst-case scenario every day that no amount of drills could have prepared us for.

I’m 17 years old. I have had a chronic illness since I was 14. In those three and a half years, I’ve had more doctor’s appointments than most people twice my age. Illness is nothing new to me. I have known for years what everyone has discovered over the course of this pandemic: the invisible threat of sickness and the unknown of developing long-term symptoms is terrifying. It makes you feel out of control.

Most of my peers, luckily, have never known illness like this, and it shows. I think about their blissful ignorance every day when I come home from school and start my decontamination routine: remove both masks that I’ve worn for eight consecutive hours; sanitize my phone, my laptop, my binders that sat on communal desks. Shower to scrub off the germs. Clothes in the hamper in the back of my closet. Is this all a bit extreme? Perhaps.

Every authority figure in the district says that masking alone will protect us from the virus — and they’d better hope this is true, since they removed social distancing restrictions, have no idea who’s vaccinated, and have now instituted the most relaxed possible contact tracing efforts. But the hallways are filled with students with masks on their chins or only over their mouths. This type of “masking” does nothing to stop the spread of COVID. Teachers do what they can in classrooms (in fact, a huge shout-out to my teachers, they are the people doing the most) but they cannot effectively teach a class while simultaneously asking the same few students to pull their masks up every two seconds. To my knowledge there are no consequences for incorrect mask wearing (and if there are they don’t work, as there have been no changes to my classmates’ behavior). The truth is that if all the students who do not mask properly were, for example, suspended for repeatedly violating the masking mandate, only about two-thirds of the student body would remain. So while I do understand the predicament, I have to ask why the safety of the students who are not posing a public health risk to their classmates is not being prioritized.

I do not feel safe at school, and I can’t be the only one. I have seen a way of thinking grip the minds of my community and communities across the country: That if you are young, COVID is mild, it’s never deadly, and generally is worth the risk. However, not all young people have healthy immune systems and will be fine. I am a testament to this. Even if COVID is “just like a cold,” as I keep hearing, the last time I got a cold, in 2019, it triggered a three-month relapse of my illness where I could barely get off the couch. The presumption that young people will get sick and get better without issue leaves out immunocompromised and disabled kids like me. So as students continue to take safety guidelines as a suggestion, I am left wondering who, if anyone, is making policies with our protection and well-being in mind.

To be honest, I started writing this letter two months ago, when the first real outbreak at MUHS occurred. At the time, I decided not to submit it, not wanting backlash from the school or the district. But as cases surge, and I feel even more invisible and unsafe at school, I don’t want to be quiet any longer. As omicron becomes a bigger threat by the day, and leaders at the state and district level push forward with their message that school is a safe and low-risk environment for COVID transmission, or the new line that everyone’s going to get it, there’s nothing we can do, so we will in fact choose to do nothing, I want to speak openly about my current reality as someone with a chronic illness. Good faith messaging from district leaders that I’m sure is meant to discourage panic, ends up downplaying and burying the reality: that school can be and is a place of COVID transmission and that bigger steps need to be taken to keep vulnerable community members safe.

I don’t have all the solutions; I’m only 17, this is not my job. It just seems like common sense that if you ignore a problem, pushing forward with a back-to-normal agenda, then it is only going to get worse. I urge the governor, the school board and the superintendent to take steps to keep kids safe, because right now, the adults in the room are failing us.

Carly Browdy

Middlebury

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