Whether or not schools should be open has been a heated debate since the beginning of COVID-19. For much of the first year and a half of the pandemic, schools in blue states or cities in particular remained either fully or partially closed. But then things shifted, in part due to the widespread availability of vaccines for both staff and students, and in part due to school closures contributing to political losses for Democrats. Then came omicron.
This latest, highly contagious variant has caused widespread teacher, support staff, and student outages, making it difficult for even the new normal of school (masked, with occasional class quarantines) to persist. And so, whether schools should be open or closed has yet again become a fight about public health, education, and the future of children’s well-being in America.
For one high school student, though, the issue is much more practical. COVID “has completely taken over any function of daily school life,” wrote a sophomore in a Reddit post last week, titled “I Am a New York City Public High School Student. The Situation is Beyond Control.” The post quickly went viral for its level of detail on what school is actually like right now. (The student asked to remain anonymous, so we’ll call him Josh, after his Reddit handle. But we confirmed his identity.) In the post, he describes how his week after winter break was upended by teacher absences, as cases in the city hit an all-time high. The school day is filled with empty classes and extra study hall periods in which students gather in an auditorium where there is “functionally no learning occurring.” (After the second study hall in a row, Josh and some of his peers realized that the “health conditions were safer outside of the auditorium” and left.)
We spoke to Josh on Saturday about how omicron has changed things at his high school, what he wishes administrators would do right now, and what it’s like to have peers test positive during the school day itself. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Slate: What do you hope people get out of reading your Reddit post?
Josh: One of the intents was to, I wouldn’t say laugh, but just recognize a certain level of absurdity in the way that school is being managed right now. I think the most important thing is that when people look at the issue of closing schools, they’re really only looking at the health side of it. It’s a black-and-white discussion—people are either saying “you’re risking students’ health” or “it’s just idiotic to close schools.” It seems that there’s little nuance. But just with the sheer volume of cases, it makes it impossible for there to be actual learning conditions at school.
In the post, and in your tone right now, you sound pretty lighthearted. Are you worried about COVID?
I think some students have a feeling of fear about COVID, in general. For me personally, I had COVID recently, so I suppose in some respects I’m immune to it.
I don’t mean to be lighthearted. I think it’s serious, but I can’t help it because I think there’s just a certain sense of absurdity. I know a student who had six study hall free periods yesterday, and they only had three classes. And in their classes, 50 percent of the students were out. And so for them, it’s just, why did they come to school? Why are they risking health, risking the fact of potentially getting COVID when they could choose to be just not going to school or schools couldn’t be open?
How much of your high school experience has happened during the pandemic, and how has it changed since March 2020?
All of it. In ninth grade, I was on Zoom the entire year. This year, I’d say that other than wearing masks, before this past week, COVID almost felt unnoticeable. Even wearing masks feels normal at this point. You do a health screening every day. When you enter school, you have to show that you haven’t had COVID. But other than that, it felt—nobody ever got COVID. Maybe once a month one student got COVID. But now it’s been a big, big deal.
What are the conversations with your peers like right now?
Before break, I rarely heard COVID talked about ever. Now, nearly every single conversation starts with talking about how we find it absurd that we’re in school. I’d say in the hallway, when I see people I know, the first question anybody asks is, how many study halls did you have? How many something-related-to-COVID did you have today? Everything seems to revolve around it, especially this week.
One of the most striking parts of your Reddit post is the fact that kids are testing themselves at school and getting positive results at school. Can you tell me what that’s like?
There were two moments I wrote about. One was during fourth period, a student tested positive in the auditorium. I didn’t have fourth period study hall at that time, but I heard it from numerous, numerous students who said that people were testing positive with or sharing their positivity within the front of the auditorium, which is just, to me, that’s very concerning.
Then in the hallway and the staircase, a student asked if their faint line was a positive test. It was very jarring because I thought everybody would know that a faint line is a positive test. Interestingly enough, that student ended up actually being negative, but they got a false positive test. That’s another layer. How well are the rapid tests working? How reputable are they? So I think it’s just jarring and scary in general.
I have this sensation often that I’ve had to become a mini epidemiologist in my own life, to figure out what’s going on with cases and tests and everything around me. And I’m getting that sense from you too.
I try, but I’m busy. I read a lot of news pre–2020 election. Honestly I’ve tailed off in what I read about COVID. I think I need to get back into trying to be a little more of an epidemiologist because I didn’t know that they had approved boosters for students ages 12 to 15 on Monday. I learned at school. So I need to work on that a little.
If you had the power right now to do whatever you want with opening school, closing school, setting up Zoom school, making snow days or COVID days where you don’t have to do anything, what would your proposal be?
My suggestion would be to close school for a week. In terms of within school itself, I think teachers are doing the best that they can at enforcing health and trying to give students material to learn on. But with just the sheer amount of people that are out and the number of kids that are out, they’re dealt a deck which is just impossible to manage.
It just seems like if cases keep rising, it’s just going to get worse and worse. Not even in terms of health-related issues. No one’s really getting severely sick. Just in terms of learning loss.